I have no subjective experience of your subjective experience of yourself.
The person you are to you likely does not exist in the same way to me. It doesn’t matter how much I love, value, treasure, esteem my experience of you, I do not know your experience of you.
That’s a pretty big mental concept to swallow. It negates any concepts of ownership or rights to a person that you might have, and which many people do have. It doesn’t matter what you think your partner owes you or how much they are *yours* because you will never even know who they are to themselves because you can never experience them as they do. And vice versa. And with your friends. And strangers on the street who engage in their everyday chaos of being human.
But it is a concept that’s based on a lot of science. Starting with basic consciousness and how we perceive the world. Humans and most animals have developed what is known as privatization of sensory feedback.
What does that mean?
It means you experience something through the senses, that information travels to the brain, it is broken down, and then you choose how to respond to it based on factors like other experiences. Of course, the word “choose” can require air quotes and a skeptical tone, considering people often respond to sensation before even consciously realizing they’ve experienced the sensation.
For example, people respond to questions like “please move your hand” in the same way. They often start to move their hand before their brain consciously registers that they heard the request.
That’s also true with touching a hot pan. People will jerk away and even exclaim “Hot” even before realizing that they are in pain. And experiments show that’s actually true even if the people being experimented on only think the pan is hot.
Your feedback loop processes data more quickly than you consciously register it and you react to it. But, without having been exposed to something hot and without ever having been asked to move your hand, the results are very different.
Of course, people still have some non-privatized reactions. Some good examples of those are:
- An object flying at your face. Most people will flinch or recoil even the first time this happens, unless they are babies
- A doctor taking a little hammer to that one spot just below the kneecap, triggering the neuromuscular system to cause your leg to jump. You have no say in it, push the button and something happens.
- Orgasms, which can result in significant muscular reaction which you don’t get any control of whatsoever
That’s in direct contrast to something like an amoeba. If you put an amoeba on a petri dish and torture it by poking at it with electricity and other stimuli, you can easily trigger whatever reactions you want by giving it specific stimulus. The amoeba has no privatization of sensory feedback. A sensation results in an immediate reaction over which the amoeba has no control. Much like a doctor tapping the right spot under your knee with a hammer or muscles shaking during an orgasm you push the button and get Y result.
And, largely, privatization of sensory feedback is a great thing unlike with real estate property and public transport. It means that you can take stock of what you are experiencing, analyze it in light of past experiences, and then choose what seems to be the best course of action as a result. Often, your analysis and choice will be so fast that you may not even be aware of them happening. On the other hand, others can take agonizingly long, such as when you’re not sure what you’re experiencing.
Increasingly, emotions are also treated in this light. As a physical experience which the brain then analyzes, interprets, and reacts on. And, just like with words, those interpretations can be quite ambiguous, multi-faceted, and even wrong.
I experience X, Y, and D, and in the past that meant G so I will respond how I responded to G. And, if that happens so quickly that you don’t realize the process is going on, you might simply go “yes, I am experiencing G”. A moment to stop and more consciously look at what you are feeling and why might change your opinion, even if you’d still have to deal with whatever you reacted to by deciding on G.
That becomes even more complicated when you bring in the concept of co-presence heuristics, of having data or interpretations that allow you to use what could be called “experiential shorthand”.
In linguistics the easiest way to refer to this is: the ability to refer to something without detail, because the other listeners were there and know what you are talking about.
Let’s say that you and another person are in a room and I say something completely, ridiculously wrong. Everyone laughs at me.
Later, a third person joins you and you reference me saying something completely stupid. But you do so using sarcasm and go “Wow, Brandy, really smart isn’t she”. The third person, who doesn’t have the co-presence heuristics of having heard me say something ludicrous, takes this at face value. They go on to tell someone else how smart I am. (wow please don’t, that sounds like a lot of expectations to live up to).
In emotions, co-presence heuristics work about the same. Without context into what someone experienced when they selected a reaction, you can’t
- Jeff and Cindy go out and meet up with Bob. Cindy knows that Jeff is having a bad day and that he’s been being cranky, she also knows why and sympathizes. So, when he’s cranky she laughs it off and makes a joke. Jeff calms down and enjoys the rest of his evening.
- 2 weeks later, Jeff goes out with Bob. Bob does something that upsets Jeff and he reacts with annoyance. Bob remembers the interaction with Cindy and laughs it off and makes a joke. Jeff gets even more upset.
Except, it’s extremely possible that the only person with a presence heuristic is the person who experienced the emotions. If no one else knows your subjective experience at the moment, or your basis for interpreting those emotions, they’ll be unable to understand what’s going on.
- Someone who has touched a hot stove vs who has not touched a hot stove being asked to put their hand on the stove
- Someone whose parents hugged them after they got hurt versus someone whose parents told them to stop crying
- Someone who spends time with a chronic liar and is aware of this versus someone who is unaware that people lie
- Someone who got jealous, sat down and had a conversation about it, and walked away feeling better versus someone who got jealous, had a fight about it, and broke up with their partner over it
Small variations in experience result in markedly different interpretations of sensory feedback. And, sometimes that’s actually just about social experience. For example, orcs in fantasy are often very dubiously painted as having yellow skin and slanted eyes, because their archetype, the one in Tolkien’s epic does.
People often paint evil as being dark or black, because they’re accustomed to it, and because in the past, people had very real reason to be afraid of the dark. Most cultures have some form of metaphorical usage of black and white dualism, contrasting good and evil, where even in very specific cases like L.E. Modesitt Jr’s Fall of Angels which reverses the colors, one color is good and one is bad. Why black and white and not yellow and purple? Social experience.
People use experience to shape their world and their responses. The privatization of sensory feedback enables that by first allowing us to withdraw, compare the experience to past experiences, and come up with a best solution.
That also allows us to lie. Sometimes even as part of polite social interaction. Sometimes it’s better to keep interpretation of sensory feedback to yourself. For example, if you get stage fright while speaking to a small crowd. Of if you really don’t appreciate the artistic beauty of your three year old’s drawing but you want to encourage them anyway.
They also allow for speech acts, which are performative parts of language that contribute to interaction.
- “I’m sorry”
- “Hi, how are you”
- “You’re half an hour late”
- “Let’s meet up sometime”
Quite often, these speech acts are intended to convey what you are feeling. Often, they are used for expediency.
- Do you automatically say sorry at every minor inconvenience, whether or not you feel an emotion that could be translated into “I feel remorse”
- Do you want to know how someone is every time you ask? Do you even care if they answer?
- If someone is late, do you mean to say they are late, or do you mean to say “you made me feel bad by being late”?
Speech acts allow people to reference responses that worked in similar social situations and apply them – even when they don’t feel the emotion they’re purporting to.
And, just like a baby can be genuinely surprised when you hide behind the blanket and then peekaboo suddenly appear, people who don’t know that language or secondary language learners can be genuinely surprised when you don’t actually feel the emotion purported to be behind your speech act.
Why do people use them? Fitting in is a great thing. And, a lot of people engage in communication in a transactional way. There is a right and a wrong way to go about it. If someone gives something then they must get something, and so on.
Yet, actual language is riddled with ambiguity, as are emotion and other sensory experiences. The person saying sorry might not be sorry for the act they are saying sorry for but they might be sorry for something else altogether at the same time.
Just like your eyes can deceive you while watching someone walk around in an Ames room, your other senses can deceive you in other respects.
That’s also true with language, which can have fairly significantly different meanings based on context and your past experience. Except, with language, you have to know the experiences of the person speaking, you need those specific heuristics in order to understand what is being said.
And importantly, those phrases don’t have to be ambiguous on a surface level.
“After a while he raised his head”.
- Who is he?
- Who is his?
- Are he and his the same person?
- How long is a while?
- What sense of raise is intended?
Let’s take a very quick look at some of the possible interpretations here, ignoring the definition of a head (a body part containing a brain?, a string of pheasants, a statue?) or the duration of a “a while”.
- Sam sighed and dropped his head into his hands. After a while he raised his head and squared his shoulders. It was time to go.
- The nurse leaned into the patient, “you should drink”, he chided, but the man slumped. The nurse grimaced and after a while, he raised his head and pushed the glass against the man’s lips. “Drink”
- Solnak the barbarian dropped with a mighty blow from the dwarven axe, his neck severed. The dwarf smiled in triumph and leaned to pick up his trophy. He lifted his head high for all to see.
Fortunately, most of us inside of a single culture will be exposed to roughly the same experiences, the same references, the same parameters in which to interpret language, emotion, and the senses. Those interpretations won’t be exactly the same and you’ll have outliers who might have completely different understandings of one topic or another. But, most of us will, on average, have roughly the same ideas and concepts which makes communication a lot simpler.
Most of us may be made up of a clockwork of internal parts and processes, but it doesn’t require knowing exactly why they function the way they do to have a rough idea that they are functioning and outputting Z result, most of the time.
When I say orange, most people will be able to pick the color out of a pile, unless you happen to be an outlier who can’t tell green and orange apart. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with being an outlier – it just means that it’s markedly convenient for both people to realize you happen to be colorblind.