Emotional Merger

an unknown cognitive process


Merger doesn't get enough attention, considering its universality and importance. Let's give it some attention, okay? Forgive my brevity.

Emotional Merger seems to be a general process within emotion-related (i.e., all) cognition.

What happens when one motivational frame replaces another? While in the midst of carrying out one's life tasks within some emotional assessment of things, something else happens to which one must pay special attention. In the defocussed background some information processing system is watching for its match, its particular triggering stimulus, whereupon it raises an alarm that grabs the emotional system and shifts its attention to the probability of a new emotional interpretation in which, say, fear is the relevant frame, or any other of the basic emotions. Beforehand there is an internal world-constitution, representing what the organism needs to represent to operate effectively within its preceding motivational frame, such as goal, path, obstacle, tool, etc. Then afterward there is a replacement world-constitution representing what the organism now needs to represent in order to operate effectively within this new motivational frame, for example (in the case of fear), perhaps, anticipated threat event or action, fight/flight action plan, characterization of the threat agent and the threatened outcome, a place-of-safety, some path-to-safety, etc. So between the preceding and the succeeding internal representations of the world is a transition, obviously, since they are quite different.

Example: A mental representation of the relevant aspects of my world as ice cream (goal) in the fridge reached by going around the kitchen table (obstacle, path) and eaten using the spoon in one's hand (tool) is replaced by the siren, the barking, the flashing colored lights out the window, and one or more imagined crimes or disasters outside which at first are merely underspecified placeholders but for which we will actively gather relevant information to fill out. Before, one emotionally structured world; after, another. In between? Transition. Obviously there is some kind of transition.

What is the nature of this transition? The simplest, surest, safest algorithm to carry out such a transition (and safety and certainty are extremely high priorities in such a transition, since failure to get it right might mean failure to evade a surprising or unrecognized threat, might mean death), is a wipe-and-redraw algorithm. Maintaining structure across such a transition would assume that the previous assessment of that part does not need re-evaluation, but the whole point of making an emotional transition is that things need re-evaluation. Do you want to go through everything and decide whether this is to keep or not, and then after that start rebuilding with a half-populated scene in mind? That would be a two-pass algorithm, double the work, double the time, and vulnerable to classification mistakes when you didn't get something right that you kept but turned out to need reinterpretation. No. So for these strong reasons, a complete wipe-and-rebuild operation makes the most sense.

What do I mean by a wipe-and-rebuild? We consider an organism (such as you or me or a well-designed robot or an animal with a nervous system) which itself actively represents things usefully for itself, and makes a change in that representation, going from one construct of what it sees as its world to another. The previous internal construct, in which the organism represents the world in a useful way according to the previous frame, has to be deconstructed, disassembled, or I will say, "Merged". All of its significances including the distinctions of good/bad, attractive/repulsive, friend/foe, useful/useless, opening/obstructing, down to the level of for example details of grip or trajectory of movement, all must go away, so that the field can be made ready for a new re-constitution of a new world-representation according to the succeeding, the new emotional state or motivational frame, which has its own priorities and objects. Wipe the blackboard, clean out the previous world in one's inner representational system, and then reconstitute the world again using the new motivational frame with its new archetypal elements, roles, relationships, events, actions.

I'm interested in the middle bit, the empty world resulting from this wipe operation. Before the rebuild, after the wipe. It could be described as a field or state of oneness, an internal non-representation held in its representational space by the representational machinery of organismal cognition. It is a space of potential, of openness, of active, perhaps conscious, readiness to perceive things as. It is surrounded by and fed by the unconscious information processing systems that filter, select, and structure data and percepts for potential capture and inclusion in the new scene. In this space is the wild possibility of the unknown as well as the calm oceanic stillness of emotional oneness. It is the (hypothetical?) state of merger.

Merger might last for zero or more seconds. Indeed moments of oneness might last for a negative duration, since the alarm-raising subsystem may have percepts and archetypal structures built and percolating upward into consciousness before the previous scene has been fully wiped. But in principle, or in theory, one might have a little pause before fully settling into a new world-structuring scene, and this pause phase would be a phase of you might say unity, where emotionally significant distinctions of this and that haven't been established quite yet. Incidentally, I think it constitutes wisdom, to allow for a positive duration of unstructured perception. Let the flow of being continue to flow for a bit. It would allow for an emotional flow state, unconstrained by moral judgements of one's circumstances or by assessments of how things are going in one's authorially developing history of oneself. This phenomenon does occur in nature, if rarely, and merger would account for it.

Indeed if one could extract oneself from the urgency of any current motivational frame, possibly carry out this merger operation, that would seem to constitute emotional relief and emotional liberation. If it weren't strictly necessary to have a successor emotional frame to reorient within, before carrying out the merger step in the wipe-and-rebuild operation (for example as in meditation or chanting or any kind of communion) then this state of emotionally unbound oneness might be instantly accessible, unconditionally. Very well.

Let's go back and discuss merger. I'm saying merger is a fundamental psychological process that goes on in prioritizing organisms (that is, all of them). It is the wipe operation in the wipe-and-redraw process.

Stepping back, let "categorization" be that cognitive process which merges an instance into its category.

But in the redraw phase where an emotional interpretation of a new scene is elaborated in building first more general then more specific percepts, representations of the emotionally relevant aspects and elements in the scene, the system does a lot of categorization, indeed of emotional categorization. The subsystems feed partially structured information up, and the emotional interpreter classifies them into the archetypal roles they may fit in, including the role of "ignoreable". As more details come in the representational scene becomes more fully populated and more detailed, compatibly with the emotional picture which one is (often quite urgently) trying to build, so that one can successfully act in one's world.

On a warm summer moonlit walk smelling the blackberries, suddenly a shadow becomes a threat becomes a bear becomes a grizzly bear with open mouth and glaring eyes reflecting in the moonlight. Attention is drawn here or there according to the emotional re-evaluator inside, based on unconsciously-triggered internal alarms and re-evaluations going on constantly. (If not constantly, then you might miss that bear, and be eaten. Organisms that have survived a million generations with bear-like threats around must have evolved to not miss the bear too often, thus they must have been watching rather constantly.)
We think categorization goes from specific to general: a blackberry is a berry is a fruit is a plant is a living thing is a thing. But when the organism redraws its emotional scenery it might be the other direction. a field of oneness and potential becomes the specific raised possibility of a scene of threat, evoking archetypal or logical roles of what might happen, how, by whom, and what might be done about it to protect, prevent or escape, and as information flows from external perceptual subsystems into the emotionally colored scene-builder space, some of it is passed over as ignoreble, some flows into the different roles that they may be compatible with and as more information comes in, those roles become more fully instantiated and specified with all the details carried by that role in the new scene. Like the increasingly detailed bear. The increasingly detailed bear follows a categorization process that goes from general to specific, not from specific to general. The frame first, then the archetypal roles, and then the finer details are filled in after. This lets us get to the emotional point sooner, and therefore allows us the quickest response in circumstances which might require urgently quick response at the cost of our lives, or shall we say, at the cost of an evolutionary penalty to the evolved pattern which is, say, me. This is an argument that emotions evolved to work this way (general to specific) rather than the reverse (specific to general). Damasio 1994 and Veatch 1998 make the point, that cognition is always emotionally colored and here I'm saying this is for evolutionarily good reason.

So we have a discrepancy between the study of logic and knowledge, and the study of emotional reframing, if emotional categorization within a motivational frame goes from general to specific rather than the other way around. In structuring knowledge logically, we start with the more-detailed picture, as if knowing everything, and then we classify things into increasingly general and inclusive categories. Blackberries and strawberries and elderberries get grouped into berries, and we go up the tree of categories toward the root, starting with the things we know, and inferring the categories which we make up or infer. Whereas in the flow of immediate psychological processing, we put in the details later, but get the bigger picture, the relevant outline first. It's a bit paradoxical because how can you know the new emotional frame without some details giving you a new category to think about, and I agree but I'd attribute that to a certain amount of unconscious peripheral processing where perceptual detail is resolved into relevant threat, say, outside of our direct focus and attention, and then that triggers a focussed reevaluation with full attention.

I'll give you an example. Jordan Peterson said we are evolved to detect snakes in our peripheral vision; but I had a contrary experience. Coming home I thought I saw a bunny in the brown grass in my lower peripheral field of view; I stared and stared and couldn't see the bunny, finally I was able to pick it out of its camouflage background. Another time at night I saw a brown tall looming thing which triggered my percept of "deer", which grabbed my attention and pumped some adrenalin. Staring, I redrew the picture in my mind as more data come in, to get the more accurate and long-term-actionable percept, which was: fence post. It's not just about snakes, Jordan. It's about multiple levels of perception, including both peripheral and central categorization. Which resolves the paradox of having a bigger picture in the first place, before being able to put the details into it, when said bigger picture has to have come from some details in the first place. A layered model of multiple representation systems will produce a lot of apparent paradoxes, I'd expect.

The path I'm following here is really simple: I'm just drilling down on what happens in our minds when things change and we have to figure things out anew. I'm trying to figure it out from a philosophical or logical perspective of more specific vs more general, and from an evolutionary perspective in which one system design might be preferred for survival's sake, and from a process perspective in which peripheral perceptual information processes feed data into a scene-construction process.

I consider the perception process as something like a fountain, which continuously or repeatedly over time feeds data inward toward an information-integrating, decision-making space. The new data either redundantly supports and continues an existing percept or role in its built scene, or with novelty adds information into the built scene whether by further detailing existing elements or adding new elements or rupturing the whole scene, carrying information that justifies an emotional reanalysis.

Dream experience, for example, is a space in which the fountainlike continuance of sensory support for the scene elements is absent, so the scene construction facilities can build new elements ad infinitum. Sensory support is like the top of a fountain where the upshooting slowing to upwelling starts to fall at a wavering, rising, falling, but identifiably similar topping-out point or somewhat wavering surface, which continues over time to be the topping out point of the fountain. Similarly a perceived element of your constructed scene is supported again and again as perceived and as still being there as the information continues to come in; this is scene support, as opposed to scene construction.

Dreams lack scene support. It's quite like being awake with the normal mental activities of mental scene-building and path-following, but without scene support. That's my analysis of dreams.

Let me restate this model of emotional change. With perhaps every emotional change of coloring some part of the (perhaps even the entire) subjectively perceived universe is internally erased and reconstituted more or less from scratch under the new emotional valence or color or motivated frame. All things in the previous frame's world-constitution are erased or merged into a universal framing where all is one; this itself might be considered an recategorization of all those previous emotional meanings of things as merging into some super-category or higher meaning, in the possibility of itself or of other meanings or emotionally colored interpretations.

Subsequently, a newly-perceived world is subjectively, carefully, quickly constituted, reconstituted, or re-evaluated, on the basis of incoming perception or fresh reasoning, as to what either isn't emotionally relevant in this newly colored world, or, being relevant, what operational significances, what roles do the new information justify. We create internal constructs of agent, outcome, path, tool, etc., using the relevant information, and thus populate an internal scene with the right kinds of players, props, and scenery to help us think about and ultimately respond to this newly re-evaluated situation.

What's new to me in this line of thinking are the aspects which must be there but which we hardly think of. Naturally we think of what we think of, not what we don't think of. But there are the negative sides of the emotionally significant cognitive update process, the not so much hidden as invisible, or at least unseen, aspects, which I will call merger and specification. I'm calling your attention to the fact that merger and specification are implicit in emotional re-evaluation; they are obviously, logically, necessary since past constructs need to be wiped, and new constructs don't include all available irrelevancies. So let's pay them a little bit of attention here.

Merger, then, is the operation that collapses everything into the (initially empty) new emotional field.

Specification is its successor process which rules out vast streams of incoming data as not to be attended to.

Merger wipes out the internally emotionally-relevantly-classified known; and specification filters the incoming unknown as emotionally-irrelevant. Just as paying attention to something implies not paying attention to other things, similarly, in emotional cognition, knowing something newly implies ignoring, both past knowledge and a lot of incoming potential knowledge. Thus as emotions swap in and out, consciousness throbs in a rhythm of inclusion and exclusion, with revaluation and both attending and ignoring as fundamental mechanisms.

And as we are logical machines as much as perceiving scene-constructors, merger has a logical significance as well, the logical meaning in which a sub-category is merged into its super-category, an element into its set, a zebra into its herd, or rather into all zebras, or all equines, or all hoofed beasts, or perhaps for the lion, into the category of prey. When details are added in a scene, categories divide into smaller, more specific subcategories, like an increasingly detailed bear. On the negative side, the information-removal side, when details are removed in a scene, the relatively detailed bear moves logically toward the root of the category tree, eventually becoming a mere shadow, and then a mere bit of space. Perhaps we may stop there, if we may reserve the view that a mere bit of space is itself a potential to become anything that might fill it. Perceptual space is not infinite like an outer cosmos, but reuseable like a stage. We contain a space engine, a TV screen, a rescaleable repurposeable scene-building capability with specifically spatial characteristics.

Perhaps the logicality of our thought derives from our interior spatial representations. If in a picture in our heads A is to the left of B and B is to the left of C, then we can read off the picture that A is to the left of C, by looking at the picture. Then when the symbolic logician comes along and says "Leftness is transitive" (etc.), we go back to our pictures and verify for arbitrary examples that it is so.

On the one hand, flummoxed by the logicians we think, How could it be otherwise? And we give them the credit for a solid symbolic reasoning system which we can even use in our computers, in a symbolic la-la land where a few bits implements some logical form and with syllogisms and other bit-manipulating rules our computers can "reason", and we trust our rockets and nukes and phones and social media accounts to them. I'm not saying they are wrong, but they've lost their spatial grounding. We on the other hand are talking about how organisms work, and one thing we know whenever we open our eyes or ears and look and detect the pets walking around, we as organisms represent space.

So look, on the other hand, a direct representation of space has enough logic in it that logical reasoning at the symbolic level merely recapitulates data-level and representation-level knowledge. Reading off the relationships in the spatial representation, and giving them symbolic names, preserves enough consistency with an evolved-to-be-consistent spatial representation that hardness of symbolic truth can emerges. And that evolved-to-be-consistent spatial representation is consistent with the requirements of evolution, namely that the organism should be able to operate successfully using it within and as an understandable proxy for external physical space. Why? Because if it weren't consistent with the actual killing reality of its operating context, it would be vulnerable to its misrepresentations and ignorance. The fact that we have survived so long strongly suggests our spatial representation system is rather consistent with external physical reality.

In this interplay of logic and biological information flow, consider some related examples and scenarios.

Very well, two processes countervail: specification, and merger. In specification, the system separates out the emotion-concentrating aspects of experience from all others, for example the feared stimulus or the angering subcircumstance, etc. Specification is an inhibitory, differentiating process which circumscribes the zone of threat or attention so as to focus on a smaller area with particular attention. Specification tries to limit the emotional assessment E(s) => e, to as specific and small a subset of circumstance as possible, in order to solve or resolve it most easily. Specification is intelligent work, it requires sophisticated processing, but it seems to be a bit subconscious in that while the attentional zone is the conscious area, this in contrast is about the work of reducing that attentional zone to the small part you have to do something about. It is the intelligence of making unconscious, the wisdom of removing material from view, the back side of the coin of emotion-driven attention.

In merger (which occurs ab initio during any emotional change) is more natural and effortless, the system fails to differentiate some causes of emotion versus others, and considers them effectively the same, for the purposes of the emotional response. Merger can operate at different levels, from great specificity to great generality. On one end you might not differentiate between your enemies on the battlefield, for example, but treat them all as the same. On the other end, you might decide like a saint that all people are beloved, or all things. Inclusiveness is, however, more natural than inhibitory, in the sense that less work is required. If you recognize your emotion is supportable irrespective of circumstance, then it can apply to all circumstances, and you don't have to differentiate or emotionally specify. The high emotions seem to have this quality, whereas the low emotions support greater specificity, are more wisely experienced with detailed specificity, and perhaps more naturally hold to specification than merger.

Let me end with a note on the biology of logic. Evolved processes are abstract. Any chemical reaction can occur in the same way irrespective of the identity of the individual atoms in it. Two hydrogens don't care which oxygen atom they grab to make a water molecule, or even which element they might grab, any one which will bring them to a lower energy state will do. Lots of things will do and it will work the same way. In the same way, a biological process takes its inputs to its output whenever it is triggered, and the triggering is itself a categorization of unlimited different possible circumstances into those which trigger and those which don't. It's general, it's a category, it's an abstraction, so considered. Processes are fundamentally general things, not specific things.

Biological information processing systems are abstract in this way; they collapse a variety of different circumstances into a single category, perhaps defined as those things to which one responds in a particular way W, so as to respond in generic and useful ways to survive and reproduce consistently over evolutionary time. Only general mechanisms can achieve such a survival outcome, because circumstances change and vary, yet responses must be effective. Given a limited set, perhaps vocabulary, of responses, abstraction follows logically. H. Emotional Merger is a subcategory of Abstraction. When information is removed, abstraction occurs; this is merger. When a new emotional frame is applied, all the scene elements built up in it are merged with the feeling in the sense of being consistent with and relevant within that frame; they come merged from the start, and become specified as relevant. My theme elsewhere is emotional liberation. This topic overlaps and supports that theme. Consider what might happen in a transition of some utilitarian or ego-bearing emotional frame to the no-frame of the unspecified, or the inclusive emotional frame of universal love or of the perception of the body as including the universe or of the high virtue frames of service, humility, trust, forgiveness, etc. It is strangely possible to have a new emotional frame which does not populate the world with more story-telling score-keeping emotion-binding bullshit that's all about you. And given the arguments there, when the frame is one which doesn't help you calculate and attend to your ego-ballooning measurements, then emotional binding itself can be left behind, like the relatively detailed bear moving logically to the root of the tree of knowledge, becoming a warm night's moonlit shadow, or perhaps a bit of emotionally-unbound space-inhabiting light.

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Copyright © 2022 Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Written: January 25, 2022; Developed further: August 30, 2022