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Emotional Microscope

Seeing is believing. Before we could accept the germ theory of disease, we had to invent the microscope to directly see the culprits of our ailments. These days, we live in an age that largely discounts the role emotions play in our social structures. Even as we are seeing the “rational agent” model of human behavior being called into question across the social sciences, we are far from a fundamental paradigm shift that could break with this view. As with the germ theory, such a transition may require new tools to be invented that allow us to directly see and track our emotions.

In particular, while the presence of bacteria is seen as objective “external” truth, the subjective “internal” nature of emotions often makes us treat them as “less real.” We never tell someone to “stop being sick” — as this is not within their free-will to decide. Instead we try to give them a chance to sleep, bring them soup, or antibiotics. Yet we often say “don’t be sad,” or “stop being angry” and even ascribe blame to it — somehow assuming that they are free to change this just by willing. Remember the last time you tried to stop feeling angry just by deciding to? Sure, it isn’t fundamentally impossible — much like psychosomatic healing of some diseases isn’t impossible if you are a Tibetan yogi. It’s more that this isn’t a skill we can just be expected to know and be good at without having ever received proper training. But to start learning to control our emotions, we must first learn to see and acknowledge them — both as individuals, and as society.

The truth is that seeing others’ emotions makes us uncomfortable. If someone honestly tells me that I hurt their feelings, that in itself may hurt my feelings — I might feel unwelcome, insecure, scared, and/or angry. If I don’t like feeling that way, I may try to invent some social norms of behavior that will guarantee my emotional safety — a project doomed from the outset. But there is another way: rather than avoiding or denying the situation through elaborate safety protocols and judgement, I can continue to play this game and accept, or even voice, my reaction to their reaction. Hall of mirrors: no one is to blame, no one needs to be disciplined, and no one is whining — merely observing and sharing what is real anyway, allowing for interpersonal understanding and compassion. This takes us down a rabbit hole into a vast and beautiful wonderland of emotional truth — a world that otherwise remains invisible, even as we are living right in it and are deeply affected by it every day.

Such invisible worlds, while sound like magic woo-woo on the one hand, are actually very familiar to us. If someone sneezes on me in the subway, my knowledge of bacterial infections imbues the event with meaning, even as nothing visibly substantive has happened. UV noon sunlight can burn my skin, even as I seem to be enjoying its treacherous warmth. A colleague quietly harboring resentment at me can ruin my career even as I remain entirely oblivious to the cause. The technical term is “hidden variables” — things we do not directly observe, but that decide our reality nonetheless — but “invisible worlds” is more poetic.

To truly believe in and appreciate the effect of such hidden variables, it has been enormously helpful to create technology that allowed for their direct observation. For a long time, we attributed maladies to invisible curses or spirits, while the microscope gave us a way to see and understand these beings for what they really were — microorganisms co-inhabiting our world. An infrared camera can help us see a person’s body temperature, and thus learn whether they have a fever, are getting burned in the sun, or freezing from poor blood circulation. By having tools to clearly see things like infection or temperature, we start treating them as an objective part of our reality — technologies like the antibiotics and AC are then soon to follow.

So then, can we cure misery? Following these same steps, it seems the first, and perhaps the hardest step, is to acknowledge our feelings as the hidden variables that play the formative role in our subjective world. And while spiritual and psychological teaching have been saying this for centuries, it is perhaps only now we have the technology to develop an “emotional microscope” to bring emotions into undeniable objective reality once and for all. With such technology, we could no longer lie to others, or to ourselves, about what we really care about and want in life, who we love, what job we enjoy doing, and what gives us the subtle gnawing feeling of wrongness we’d rather not see. Morality and happiness could perhaps become inevitable.

And as with any transformative technology, it could all go horribly wrong, making it now possible to persecute not only our actions, but also our emotions. Perhaps the key to avoiding this is to point this “microscope” at ourselves and harmonize our own lives, well before we point it at others. Or perhaps it’s much more complex than that — but either way, facing tough and dangerous challenges has been, and likely will be, humanity’s chosen path forward.

Do you think such technology would be as transformative as I suggest? And would it pose more “big-brother watching” type risk than benefit?

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