By Felicitas Hartung, Doctoral Candidate, University of California, San Diego
Featured image: “Big Data” JD Hancock, CC by 2.0.
The humanoid Data from the Star Trek series confronts us with the most fundamental questions about who we are and who we want to become as a human race. Data is not just a machine, but a humanoid, a machine that looks and behaves like a human being.1 While Data is human-like, he is not human. What accounts for this difference between humanoids and humans? In other words, what makes us human? Do emotions make us human? Data experiences in Star Trek Generations what it is like to be human – or at least, he thinks so. He activates an emotion chip that allows him to feel for the first time.2 The chip is supposed to turn the machine Data into a feeling human being. If Data becomes a human being through the emotion chip, our emotions would be the essence of our humanness. But is that so? This is one of the questions that historians and theorists of emotions have grappled with. Let me take you on a journey to the final frontier – the inner core of our being.
Before we can start thinking about our humanness, we need to ask, what are emotions? Star Trek Generations suggests that they are linked to our bodily senses. After Data has activated the emotion chip, he tastes a beverage for the first time. His whole body shakes after the first sip. He experiences disgust and is delighted about the idea that he HATES the drink so much that he wants to try it again. The founder of American Psychology, William James, proposed a theory that describes Data’s experiences well. He held that emotions are the perception of changes within our body, such as the reaction to a disgusting drink that causes us to shake.3 While true in some instances, James’s definition is focused too much on the single individual. It describes emotions as directed inwards, deriving from processes that happen within one’s body. If that was true, why do we laugh when someone around us makes a funny move? The processes that cause our laughter are not part of our bodily mechanisms. Hence, the idea rose that emotions are socially constructed.
Inspired by the Linguistic Turn, anthropologists started to argue in the 1970s that emotions had a universal core, but that they were expressed differently in different cultures and social settings. Some even argued that the emotion itself varied from culture to culture.4 Social constructivists, thus, suggest that emotions depend upon the social environment in which they are felt. Data, too, experiences that the social context is crucial for emotions. In Star Trek Generations, the Klingon Worf needs to walk the planks of an old sailing ship as a ritual to celebrate his promotion. Naturally, the Klingon ends up in the water which gives the crew a laugh. Data then seeks to repeat this effect by throwing the doctor overboard. He is puzzled when his actions are not considered “amusing” as he had anticipated. Thus, emotions are not only dependent upon the social context; they can also not be reproduced like mathematical equations. Data’s failure in anticipating the crew’s reaction is the motivator for him to activate the emotion chip. He believes that without the chip, his “growth as an artificial lifeform has reached an impasse” and hopes that the chip will make him more human.
As a machine, Data computes all of his moves and he expects the world around him to function in a logical and predictable way. He makes what we might call rational decisions, which are decisions based on thinking. Rational thinking is often seen as an opposition to emotion. Most famously, René Descartes proclaimed “I think, therefore I am.”5 With this dictum, Descartes proposed a dualism of mind and body. The mind-body divide also entails a separation of emotion and reasoning. Descartes assumed that our emotions were part of the body, while our thinking was separate from the body’s mechanistic operations. Basically, he suggested that thinking is the essence of our being. If that was so, then Data would not have needed an emotion chip; he would have already been a full human being because his computations mimic perfected human thinking. But he wants more. He does not believe that thinking is the essence of our humanness. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio agrees with Data. Damasio calls the Cartesian dualism of emotion and reason an “error.” He says, “as we come into the world and develop, we still begin with being, and only later do we think.”6 In other words, our thinking is not the essence of our being. How about emotions, then, are they the essence? Damasio does not think so, either. He suggests that our thinking and our feelings are inextricably intertwined and interdependent. In fact, our emotions can even help us organize our thoughts. This mechanism is most important for our intuitions which originate in our emotions and our past experiences.7
So far, so good. It seems that neither cognition nor emotions alone make us human. Maybe, they do so in tandem. Recent theories of emotions conceptualize them as cogmotions, as a mix of thinking and feeling.8 Data experiences this mix as well. At some point, he finds it hard to concentrate on the computations that Captain Picard asks him to do. He is distracted by his emotions and seeks to be deactivated until the chip can be removed. This scene is one of the rare occasions when Data’s actor Brent Spiner allows for an emotional expression on his face. By wrinkling his forehead and squinting his eyes, Spiner expresses Data’s confusion about the experience of being overwhelmed with feelings. When Captain Picard refuses to deactivate Data’s chip, he gets angry. To express this emotion, Spiner raises his voice, opens his eyes widely, and purses his lips. If it weren’t for the shiny appearance of Spiner’s face representing Data’s artificial skin, the android could have been mistaken for a human in this scene. So maybe, those theorists proposing cogmotions have found the core of our being…
But what if we experience too many or too few emotions? When Data is threatened by the villain Dr. Tolian Soran, he becomes terrified. Overwhelmed with emotions, he freezes instead of confronting the attacker. His emotions hijack his cognitions and limit his ability to act. We would describe situations like these as moments of extraordinary fear and anxiety, maybe as a disorder if they happened on a regular basis. To differentiate between temporary and more permanent ways of experiencing fear and anxiety, researchers differentiate between state anxiety and trait anxiety. Thereby, state anxiety is a temporary condition, in which someone feels anxious. In contrast, trait anxiety does not subside with time. In this case, anxiety becomes a disposition – like a character trait; hence its name.9 What Data experiences is a state anxiety, triggered by Dr. Soran’s threat. We can all relate to episodes like these where a real or perceived danger prompts a fear response in us. This is natural and an essential part of our survival mechanisms.10 As a famous detective once said, “Fear is wisdom in the face of danger.”11 Thus, having too many emotions does not make us less human – on the contrary.
But what if you have too few emotions? Does that mean you are simply a machine, like Data? Similar to Data before he received the emotion chip, a modern patient, suffering from a brain tumor, became unable to experience emotions. When he told the tragedy of his life, he seemed detached; he knew the facts, but he did not feel their impact. Apathy was a manifestation of his illness. While this apathy led to his inability to perform tasks at work and negatively impacted his social life, it neither turned him into a machine, nor did it make him less human.12
Correspondingly, despite these cases of too many or too few emotions, emotions are an essential part of our being. In fact, everyone experiences emotions very differently, which is part of our humanness. Neurologists have a word for this diversity of experiences. They call it “neurodiversity,” and define it as “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways.” These differences are not seen as deficits.13 Therefore, experiencing emotions differently does not automatically make us less human. The opposite is true: the diversity of our emotional experiences is a core principle of our humanness. They show that we ARE human, in all its facets and its beautiful diversity – and that sets us apart from the machines. In this sense, embrace your emotions and live long and prosper!
Felicitas Hartung is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History Department at the University of California, San Diego. Once her husband got her hooked up on Star Trek, her passion for pop culture started to merge with her interests in the histories of emotions and the Cold War. Being located in the city of Comic-Con, she has repeatedly shared her Star Trek obsession with her students by using several Star Trek episodes to illustrate important concepts and help students develop their critical thinking skills. Her research also explores new frontiers by merging Cold War history with the History of Science, and the History of Emotions. Her first book examines the early Cold War peace actions of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS) – a group of nuclear scientists of various nationalities who promoted the formation of a world government to prevent nuclear war.
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- Albert Sydney Hornby and Joanna Turnbull, eds., Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, New ed., 8. ed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 760.
- Star Trek Generations, directed by David Carson (Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 1994).
- William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 2, American Science Series-Advanced Course (New York: Dover Publications, 1918), 449.
- Jan Plamper, “The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,” History and Theory 49, no. 2 (May 2010): 98.
- René Descartes, The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross, vol. 1 (New York: Cambridge University Press, or. 1637, 1970), 101.
- Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Putnam, 1994), 248.
- Damasio calls this interrelationship between emotion and reasoning, the somatic marker hypothesis. He suggests that emotions “mark[ ] certain aspects of a situation, or certain outcomes of possible actions.” This can be best experienced in a ‘gut feeling’ (Damasio, xii).
- Ute Frevert, “Was haben Gefühle in der Geschichte zu suchen?,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 35, no. 2 (2009): 190; Monique Scheer, “Are Emotions A Kind of Practice (and Is That What Makes Them Have a History)? A Bordieuan Approach to Understanding Emotion,” History and Theory 51, no. 2 (May 2012): 193–220; William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Plamper, The History of Emotions: An Introduction, trans. Keith Tribe, (Oxford: University Press, 2015), 254.
- Richard J. McNally, “Anxiety,” in The Oxford Companion to Emotion and the Affective Sciences, ed. David Sander and Klaus R. Scherer (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 42. Please note that fear and anxiety become conflated in this example. Some researchers prefer to have them separated as two emotions because they have distinctive characteristics. For a definition of anxiety, see McNally’s “Anxiety.” For a definition of “Fear,” please refer to Arne Öhman, “Fear,” in The Oxford Companion to Emotion and the Affective Sciences, ed. David Sander and Klaus R. Scherer (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 182–83.
- McNally, “Anxiety,” 43.
- Sherlock, “The Abominable Bride,” January 1, 2016.
- Damasio, Descartes’ Error, chapter 3.
- Nicole Baumer and Julia Frueh, “What is neurodiversity?,” Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School, November 23, 2021, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-neurodiversity-202111232645.