The Physics of Emotion: Senses and Signals

I wanted to use physics to understand people.

I could use the same physical models to explain why the Earth is round, and why the moon orbits around it. I wanted to use those physics to explain why people ended up on the moon.

I wanted to use physics to understand why people move the ways they do — and ended up developing a theory of Emotion. When you understand what someone cares about, it’s a lot easier to predict how they will move.

This theory of emotion integrates recent attempts by Physicists to explain both the nature of intelligence and the origin of life in terms of thermodynamics. My theory of emotions relies on the same thermodynamic principles expounded in the two articles linked from this paragraph.

I’ve written much about the theory, which is simple, at its core: Emotion is how we sense the multiverse. In trying to share this theory, I’ve failed to explain something very basic along the way — which I will attempt to fix in this article.

An analogy is helpful here. When your friend says “It’s quiet in here,” what is she saying about air pressure?

She’s saying, “I am observing a reduced amplitude in the temporal variance of localized air pressure, as measured over frequencies between 20 and 20,000 hertz.”

Of course, she probably isn’t thinking that. You probably aren’t thinking that. She’s not saying anything about air pressure explicitly. She says “It’s quiet in here”, and you interpret this as a statement about her internal experience — which yours probably matches, if you’re in the same room.

The reason your internal experience matches hers is because you are both in roughly the same location, measuring the localized air pressure the same way — with human ear drums. Because you are both making the same measurements, you both experiencing the same internal sensations.

When we hear, we are experiencing, internally, the fluctuations in air pressure.

Likewise, when we see: When your friend says, “This apple is red,” what is he saying about the electromagnetic field around him?

He’s saying “I am observing a stream of photons with wavelengths on the order of 700 nanometers, being emitted by the surface of the apple in response to incident photons with wavelengths in a distribution roughly matching that of a black body at 5,778 degrees Kelvin.”

Of course, he isn’t thinking that. You’re not thinking that. Nobody thinks that when they see a red apple in the afternoon sun — unless you are weird like me, and want to apply your understanding of physics to regular, every day statements.

When you tell someone else what you are hearing, you are making two statements. The first statement — the only one that most people consider — is statement about internal psychological experience. The second statement — one that most people don’t think of — is a statement about measurements your ears have taken of localized air pressure.

When you tell someone how you feel, you are making a statement of the first category — you are describing your internal experience.

I believe you are also making a statement of the second category — you are describing your observation of an external reality. In the case of hearing, that external reality is changes in air pressure. In the case of seeing, that external reality is changes in the electromagnetic field.

In the case of emotion, I believe that external reality is the multiverse — not “parallel, alternative worlds” — but in a much simpler, more practical sense: possibilities. The way things could be.

When I try to explain this theory to people, they often reject it because “emotions are how we sense the multiverse” sounds ridiculous. It sounds as ridiculous as telling someone, “hey, do you mind not changing the local air pressure by such a large magnitude in the frequency range 120–600 hertz? I’m trying to focus.”

But that’s exactly what you’re saying when you tell someone “Please be quiet, I am trying to focus.”

Understanding the internal experience of sound — the first meaning — is essential in relating to other human beings. That understanding alone is not enough to build a better pair of headphones, though. We made music long before we understood air pressure — but once we started to understand how sound actually worked — the second meaning — we could build all kinds of elaborate technologies and devices.

We had amphitheaters before we understood how they worked. We could build much bigger, better ones afterwards. Once we understood the mechanics of sound, we could improve the quality of our auditory experiences.

Understanding the internal experience of light — the first meaning — is essential to interacting with other human beings. That understanding alone is not enough to build better visual displays. We made paintings and stained glass windows long before we understood optics. Once we started to understand what light was, and how it worked, we were able to build electronic devices, radios, and the internet.

The quality of our visual experience has improved substantially and dramatically as a result of being able to understand the mechanics of light — to understand the second meaning when someone says “It’s bright in here.”

Much of modern physics came about because scientists were unable to explain why some gasses lit up in peculiar ways when you shone electricity through them. These new theories did not just improve our ability to make visual displays — they improved our ability to communicate with one another, and to understand our world.

Just as with hearing and vision, we humans have been trying to improve the quality of our emotional experience for Millenia. We have had plenty of success thus far - but we still have a long way to go.

In order to further improve our emotional experience — and to build better emotional mechanisms — it is essential that we understand the mechanics of emotion. I believe I have pieced together what exactly is being observed, in a physical sense, when a person starts to feel sad. I believe this understanding will not not only help us improve the quality of our emotional experience — but that it will also help us understand the broader world as a whole.

My theory is an attempt to understand emotion from this physical perspective. I have used the theory to improve the quality of my emotional experience, and the quality of my decision making, because the two are intrinsically linked.

Our choice-making is often driven by emotion, just as our navigation is often driven by light. When we are ignorant of how emotion works, and we just follow our impulses, we are like moths batting at a flame. When we understand the basics of emotion — in the first sense — we are like people who can stop at a red light and go at a green light.

When we understand the reality behind emotion, and we use it to navigate the world, we will be like people using the fixed stars to find our way home.