The Black Box of Feelings

The Black Box of Feelings

Much of our situation in life is not the result of choices we make, but rather the whims of fortune and circumstance. When we make major choices, who we marry, our career, our friends, it is also the roulette of reality that presents us with the options and possibilities to choose from. But the process by which we make the selection happens in the depths of our being and is often shrouded in mystery, even to ourselves.

Falling in and out of love

A prime example is how we choose a life partner. In some cultures, even today, marriage partners are chosen by parents and not by the spouses. But whether the marriage is a happy one and love develops is subject to the same mystery. With millennials, formal marriage is often not part of a union that may produce children. The decision to get together may appear to be made casually without proposal, engagement and ceremony. But underneath, it is frequently approached with the degree of trepidation of a formal marriage. Breaking up such a union may be simple legally but is subject to significant emotional agony.

After meeting someone and sharing experiences for varying periods of time and circumstances, and with many ups and downs, one day a feeling comes that that someone is the right one to spend the rest of our lives with. In some cases, this realization comes suddenly and at first sight. In some other cases the feelings become obsessive, a folie d’amour. Whether the relationship is arranged or the result of love madness, it will last only as long as it feels right. Often, perhaps not as suddenly but just as mysteriously the love feeling dissipates, or worse yet, turns into abhorrence. When family or cultural pressures preclude separation, a long life of unhappiness results.

The chemistry behind friendship is equally mysterious. There may be some shared interests, or elements of mutual convenience, a similar cultural background social or economic status. But none of these are necessary or sufficient. At the bottom there needs to be a feeling of affinity. Having a conversation or sharing an experience needs to feel right. Why it feels right remains an enigma.


The process by which we choose an occupation or profession is also a mystery. Our ultimate choice is limited to the options and opportunities that present themselves but, as in marriage, it must feel right. We may have certain inborn abilities and talents and that may guide us to a career that uses those talents, or we may want to follow in the steps of a person we admire or be influenced by cultural or family values. Or it may come from inside or as seen in some cultures, coming from heaven. This mysterious inner direction may be so strong that despite lacking any significant talent, we may tragically choose a calling that condemns us to mediocrity or ridicule.

Snap judgments

The feelings surrounding strategic decisions such as marriage or career may stew for weeks or years before a choice is made. Some other feelings come up instantly. In business, we make judgments on people seconds after having met them. This is the main premise of the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, that our minds assess people and situations instantly without conscious thought or logic. Such snap judgments may be subsequently supported by fact and logic so they can be communicated to others, but emotions make the decision and the gathering of supporting facts and construction of arguments come after.

Purchases and sales

Feelings play a role not only in the major decisions of life, but also in the mundane. Every successful salesman knows that people don’t buy products but rather feelings. An auto salesman will talk about the technical features of a car, how well it drives, how it keeps its resale value, how reliable it is. This will appeal to some whose emotions are tied to technology and practicality. But for most of us, to ensure the sale, he or she will most subtly appeal to our self-image, our social position, to what others will think.


How we manage our money and how we spend it, not just for cars, is deeply entangled with our feelings. Nondrinkers marvel at how some people think nothing of ordering multiple mixed drinks with dinner and adding charges to their bill that can exceed the cost of the food. Others will prefer to walk for blocks and waste time looking for parking rather than pay a garage. Some will go into unsustainable credit card debt in order to satisfy a momentary whim for an article of clothing or a flashy automobile while ignoring the consequences to their future peace of mind. At the other extreme, some will go without the most basic necessities for the feeling they get from money in the bank.

Feelings out of nowhere

Most often we understand, or can construct after the fact, the logical reasons for our actions and choices. But on occasion we are seized by feelings, such as uncontrollable fear or ecstatic joy, for which we cannot find a foundation in reality. Why we fall in love or despise someone we have no idea – it’s just a feeling. It is as if our mind had a compartment that receives the same inputs as our consciousness and comes up with feelings. Consciousness experiences the feeling but has no access to or understanding of how that feeling was developed.


Introducing the black box

The term black box is used in electronics and other engineering design disciplines to refer to a device whose behavior, i.e., the inputs it receives and the outputs that result from those inputs are defined, but whose inner workings are unknown or unspecified. Effectively then, it appears the mind contains an emotional black box.

Nothing new

How we arrive at feelings has been the subject of pondering for as long as man has attempted to understand his nature and psychology. The notion of an inaccessible black box of emotions, far from being a new discovery, has been around for quite some time under other labels, Freud’s subconscious for one. The Greeks saw the Apollonian – Dionysian dichotomy as representative of the struggle between reason and passion. More recently, a simplified model of the mind frequently used in psychology consists of three components arranged in a triangle. It is known by various names – the cognitive triangle, the ABC model, and others. The components are Affect or emotion, Behavior or action, and Cognition or intellect. Each component interacts and affects the other two.


As we examine the various aspects of the emotional black box, there will be assertions that are based on scientific evidence, but many others will require a leap, if not of faith at least of common sense. Hopefully in the end the reader will be left with insights that may help to cope with the vagaries of life and of the mind. The black box notion may give us an even more simplified model of how our mind works that may help us to better understand our feelings and how they affect our conscious mind and our decisions. It might also give us an insight into our condition and the forces that move us through this life. It can be a tool for self-discovery by giving our conscious mind a way to encapsulate and isolate our feelings, a conscious container in which to wrap the emotional box and reduce its influence on the thought process.


The gene-centered theory of evolution, popularized in the book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, posits that living beings are survival vehicles constructed by genes to protect and project themselves into the future. The vehicles are designed, or rather, have been selected by the trial and error process of life, for the sole purpose of survival.

The survival strategy of each species is based on a physical body structure and a behavior that work to complement each other. Cats, with few exceptions, hunt and live alone because they are born with very effective predatory tools. Wolves, on the other hand, are not so endowed so they have developed a survival behavior based on a social structure that maximizes their chances of success in the hunt. The survival behavior of an animal species is as much prescribed by its genes as is its physical shape. Just as life’s evolution experiments with new body structures such as hair, claws, leaves or plumage, it also experiments with behaviors and chooses the ones that are most likely to result in survival.

Social Behavior

We refer to the survival behavior of animals as instincts. They are imperatives for satisfying hunger, thirst and libido, avoiding dangers through fear, etc. We share these behaviors with other species but instead of calling them instincts in the human realm we call them feelings. In addition to these there is another list of feelings that are peculiarly human: love, friendship, loyalty, injustice, greed, generosity, envy, pride and many more.

As with most other animals, human’s success is as much or more the result of their behavior than of any particularly advantageous physical trait. Man’s main structural feature, bipedal locomotion, arose very early in his evolutionary history. This freed his hands to create and use instruments. But these two features alone were not sufficient for survival in the African savannah. To compensate, Man had to develop the social structures that, as with wolves, contributed to success in the hunt and in defense against threats. Hunter gatherer bands needed to communicate, socialize and hang together, or perish. This mode of survival is evident today in hunter gatherer cultures but is just as present and essential in our more developed and interconnected global mega-culture.

If behavior is central to survival and behavior is driven by feelings, then it follows that the black box, which contains those feelings, both animal and human, is our software for survival and is, at least partially, constructed and programed by our genes.

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary Psychology studies the boundary between nature and nurture, which aspects of our behavior are acquired through experience and which are inherited, i.e., the result of evolution. Its research methods involve looking for behavior patterns that occur in large samples from all societies as well as common behaviors of identical twins that were raised separately. These techniques are intended to minimize or filter out elements that may be the result of culture, nurture or random individual variability.

Humanity has a narrow range of genetic variability in spite of its very wide and varied geographic distribution. On average, the genome of two individuals chosen at random is over 99% identical. There are a few physical traits such as height, skin color, etc. that vary, mostly because of geographical adaptation. Behavioral qualities have many more dimensions of variability, but each appears to be within a narrow range. With humans there is an overlay of culture that affects behavior and the particular situations that elicit feelings, but the way we experience feelings and react to them is on average similar across cultures.

Individual behavioral differences are much wider. While our animal instincts are universal – people feel and satisfy basic needs like libido, hunger and thirst in pretty much the same way -, our more human feelings, empathy, loyalty, generosity, etc. vary from person to person far more than any physical characteristic.


Anatomy and Physiology

The black box, like the rest of the mind, is a neural network that computes outputs based on inputs. It has access to all the sensory inputs and to a reality perceived by the conscious mind. It sees and hears what consciousness sees and hears. It has access to the conscious thoughts. It uses all this as the basis of its computations. Its outputs are perceived by the conscious mind perceives as feelings. The machinations of the conscious mind are additional input to its computations. Consciousness projects possibilities and imagines scenarios, makes them available to the black box, and it responds back with feelings.

The black box, by virtue of its survival function, is more primitive and appears to be simpler in its functioning than the conscious mind. It does not process language, ideas, symbols or perform complex logical derivations. It functions more like a simple neural network. The computation of an individual feeling is akin to an individual neuron that takes a set of inputs, applies weights to each of them, calculates the sum, compares it with a threshold and produces an output or not, all in a flash. When an animal is threatened by a predator, the decision to avoid it must be made in an instant.

We should note that the black box does not cover all the subconscious mind. Frequently, when we are bothered by a problem whose solution eludes us, a subconscious portion of our thinking brain continues to work on it using all our conscious aptitudes and skills, and delivers a solution during the next morning’s shower.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchical model of human needs. At the bottom are the life sustaining, reproduction and security needs that we share with animals. Above it are the more typically human needs of love, belonging and esteem, and at the highest level the more personal needs of self-actualization and self-transcendence. The model also proposes that the lower levels need to be satisfied before the higher ones. This hierarchy corresponds to a similar one within the black box since each need corresponds to an emotion or feeling: the need for food to hunger, the need for security to fear, the need for belonging to feelings of camaraderie or alienation. Thus the hierarchy of needs can serve as a map to the black box and could provide clues to the nervous system anatomy that realizes it.

The anatomy of the human brain reflects layers of evolution coincidentally arranged like geological layers with the oldest at the bottom and the newest at the top. The upper part of the brain, the outsized cerebral cortex, sits on top of layers that are of more primitive origin and that execute the original behaviors of survival. Given the importance of basic survival skills, one could conclude that the lower layers make all life and death decisions, override the dictums of the upper ones and thus constitute the anatomical seat of the black box. But observed behavior appears to be more complex than that. There are a number of very powerful purely human emotions that will override survival needs. Soldiers will willingly make the ultimate sacrifice and gentlemen will yield places on a lifeboat to ladies and children in full knowledge that it will cost them their life.

This detracts credence from the notion that lower Maslow needs override higher ones and points to a black box model where all emotions contend for supremacy and the final decision takes them all into account. It also points to a neural network model that consists of layers that are tightly integrated and whose output is calculated simultaneously by all the layers. Evolution found that survival in the African savannah required the sacrifice of the individual for the benefit of the tribe and developed connections between the frontal lobe and the limbic system. This way, the higher emotions, which presumably reside in the higher levels of the brain, can be integrated with the lower levels dedicated to basic survival.

Evolution typically keeps existing structures in a species that have survived the test of time and modifies or builds on them. For example, the heart, which existed long before there was a brain, has a very simple and primitive electrical system of operation that is independent of the nervous system. As the nervous system came to be, it developed connections that influence the heart rate, but the actual beating is still handled by the simpler electrical system which will continue to run even when the nervous system does not. A similar evolutionary adjustment likely developed the cortex-limbic connection. It is thus that the emotional black box became distributed through all levels of the brain.

One of the fundamental qualities of neural networks and the nervous system is the ability to learn from experience. So, the notion that the black box is totally determined by genetics makes little sense. An organism that can’t adapt its behavior to a changing environment would soon perish. Whereas genes may provide, using an analogy with computer science, the hardware and the operating system software, another layer of application software will accumulate on top of it as experience progresses. Some elements, like the ability to learn and use language need experiential training to come to full realization. Unless children are raised by humans, they will not speak. But on the other hand, no amount of training will teach a chimp how to speak, and no amount of training can turn into an opera star a person that has a beautiful voice but is tone deaf.

Although the experience training will come through the conscious mind, the memory of it may be erased from conscious memory and reflected only in the functioning of the black box. We may erase a traumatic event from our memory, but the survival value of the experience may continue to lurk in the black box and produce what to the conscious mind is an inexplicable fear. But regardless of whether the black box is inherited or acquired, it exerts a pervasive control over our lives.


Who is in charge?

Going back to the layers of the brain, its more primitive components, the so-called reptilian brain, sit between the cerebrum or thinking brain and the spinal cord, which controls all voluntary muscles below the neck. This anatomy supports the argument that all actions are mediated by the black box, and that the three components of the ABC model of the mind may not be arranged in a triangle. Rather, affect, i.e., the black box, sits between cognition, the conscious mind, and behavior so that actions are taken only with the approval of the black box.

Another indication of this is language that betrays the mechanism whereby we make decisions. The rather rude way of stating why we have done something is because I feel like it. The corresponding phrase in Spanish – porque me da la gana – because I get the urge – is even more telling . Such phrases reflect the fact that decisions are made at an organic or emotional level. The conscious mind may be under the illusion that it can execute action when in fact its decisions are executed only with the acquiescence and under the influence of the black box. It exercises its power mostly by injecting feelings into the consciousness which in turn selects options that feel right. In extreme cases, actions that the black box considers unacceptable may be stopped at the last minute as in paralyzing fear.

To be clear, the black box does not make all decisions on its own, rather, decisions are made through interaction with the conscious mind. In actions with no emotional implications, the black box simply executes the request of the conscious without question. In tense situations, it takes a more active role. When one feels the desire to harm another person because of an offense or a threat, that feeling will be weighed against the feelings resulting from the consequences of the action. It may be a feeling of empathy for the harm to the other person, or the conscious mind may envision the legal consequences for the action. The vision of prison is made available to the black box which may generate negative feelings strong enough to prevent the action.

Two separate aspects of the black box, empathy and patience or caution enter in this computation. The feeling of offense that triggers the desire to strike back, and the feeling of empathy are processed instantly inside the black box. Whereas the consideration of legal consequences requires time for the conscious mind to imagine the punishment result, submit this image to the black box, and have the black box then weigh the two before acting. Counting to ten provides the time required for reflection on consequences by the conscious mind. Impulsiveness or having a short fuse refers to individual variability that shortens the time the black box is willing to wait.

Levels of empathy also vary widely. Some are totally incapable of harming another. Others, whose black box is deficient in calculating feelings of empathy and are not willing to wait for a rational analysis of the consequences, will do the harm and then ask questions. Such individuals are well represented in our jails.

Another example of this interaction is heroism. We may think the hero has a conscious sense of duty and decides to give up his life for the good of the group. In fact, it is more the result of an emotional calculation in the black box, where the feeling of self-preservation is weighed against the feeling of altruism for the group which is programmed into the black box by evolution based on the need for group survival. The need for self-sacrifice may be developed in the conscious mind by weighing the evidence of danger and benefits, but the final decision is purely emotional.


Conventional wisdom suggests that politics and religion should not be discussed in polite company. Why these two topics heat up the black box to produce such strong and often violent feelings and why such reactions are so universal suggests they result from an evolutionary adaptation.

Group survival is central to human evolution and accordingly is woven inextricably in the gene-based portion of the black box. For a group to work, its members need to have a feeling of membership in it. Group identity, loyalty, allegiance, team spirit, esprit de corps, all refer to the same feeling. Back in the savannah, the group was a clan or a tribe that shared a common interest, a culture that included elements such as dress, body decorations and language, and in some cases a symbol for the group itself in the form of a flag or other readily identifiable symbol. Cohesion and passion for the group was essential for survival. The group also had a leader that directed and focused the resources and collective will of the members towards activities necessary for the group to prosper and survive.

The emotional mechanisms of identity are still with us today and modern society utilizes in various ways that are different but still mimic the tribe even though the species has transcended the need for small survival-oriented groups. The group membership imperative now plays in the formation of nations, faiths, companies, sports teams, clubs, secret societies, political parties and schools of philosophy. We can think of these categories of groups as different dimensions of identity and an individual will normally have multiple allegiances so long as they are in different dimensions.

Curiously, the depth of passions generated by identity do not seem to be related to the importance of the group. During a game, one may feel far more frantic about a sports team than about the business entity that helps put food on the family’s table and pay for the tickets. Passion is more strongly related to conflict or competitive clashes. A sports team winning or losing, unless there is a bet involved, has zero consequence to one’s material situation. Yet if there is a play or referee call that is considered unfair, the stadium may explode in violence. We may not think much about national identity when things are placid and secure, but the moment there is an external attack, the national symbols are unfurled, and everyone quickly rallies around the leader.

There is redundancy in the term Identity Politics. It is mostly used surrounding groups that feel marginalized, mistreated or alienated by society at large for reasons of gender, race, sexual orientation etc. But all politics is based on identity to a group: a political party, a faction within a political party, adherents to a particular political ideology, or even devotees or antagonists of a particular individual. It is the effect of the identity hardware in our black box that makes politics so heated and often irrational.

Thought Process

In most contexts, but particularly in identity and politics, the most important power of the black box may not be its veto over actions but rather its control over the conscious mind through its influence on our train of thought. As we gather information that serves as input to a deliberative process, our mind will assign credence to each item based on how it agrees with our established notions and feelings. We will often deny and totally disregard evident facts if we find them painful or disagreeable. A well-known demonstration of this tendency is the case of a spouse who is the last person to learn that the other spouse is being unfaithful.

By twisting or rejecting the facts that consciousness uses as a basis for the thought process, the black box twists the resulting conclusions. No one is immune to this phenomenon. Journalists, particularly those that deal with political subjects and despite the professionalism that is expected of them, fall victim to the bias of their political inclinations, particularly in the overly divisive and heated politics of late. To observe this one need only tune to the two major cable news networks on any given day and observe that they present two very different alternative realities. Neither one presents false information, but given an event or situation, one side will present only those aspects that supports their position, i.e., the facts that feel good. Oftentimes, a story will be ignored altogether or in the case of newspapers buried in the middle of the issue. And all along, the conscious mind of the journalist is under the delusion that it is being objective and unbiased.

We all suffer from this and not only in politics. A patient given a diagnosis of a serious or potentially fatal illness will, sometimes, in spite of high intelligence, encapsulate the painful news in a construct of selected facts that support a positive outcome and ignores the recommendations for treatment that do not feel right to the black box. The result may be, as in the case of Steve Jobs, an untimely death.



Arthur Schopenhauer published his main work The World as Will and Representation in 1819, well ahead of Darwin’s theory of evolution (1859). He identified the will as the main component of reality, as the force that makes all happen for both living and inanimate objects. In the human realm, he saw the will as the force that drives us forward through life. And in an observation that had been previously made by Hume as “reason is a slave to the passions”, he posited that we are effectively slaves of the will.

Given that the black box provides the impetus for all our actions and that it mediates approves and executes all our decisions, it follows that the black box embodies our will. As the behavioral component of the survival machine programmed by our genes, it ensures we always feel the desire to live and pushes us to endure the pains and sorrows the wheel of life may deal.

This thirst for life and all other emotions are the whips in our condition as slaves, the strings in our condition as puppets. But how can we embrace a notion of slavery to the black box, so contrary to our common self-image? What became of our own will, our free will? Can we accept that we are marionettes jerked around by our genetically prescribed emotions, that we are slaves of the will of life, that our genes control us by giving us pleasure or pain according to whether our actions are good or bad for their survival? Can we believe that every aspect of our conduct, our virtues and faults, as well as our abilities, all of what we recognize as human nature, is nothing but the result of evolution, of the will of life to survive? This is such a dark and pessimistic view of the human condition! How do we reconcile it with our enthusiasm, our joie de vivre? Or are these just illusions created by the will of life to coax us into carrying on? If we accept the gene-centered theory of evolution the answer is clear.

Schopenhauer is credited with bringing to western philosophy concepts from the ancient Indian religions that looked at human cravings, at the will, as a source of suffering. They sought enlightenment, the liberation from those desires, having conscious reason control the will and not the opposite. They looked for ways that the intellect can transcend and escape the bondage of the will and realize a higher reality that is free from the needs of the physical body and the endless cycle of birth, reproduction and death.

There is an aspiration shared by many faiths where our consciousness, our soul, transcends our biological condition, where it escapes the body. This transition is somewhat paradoxical since it is our physical body which makes our consciousness possible. The Buddha ran into this limitation when he sought enlightenment by denying all his urges. As he was nearing death from self-starvation he realized the need for a Middle Way that accepted and tended to the basic physical needs of the body while renouncing the nonessential demands of the will. In the West, the same aspiration despises the excesses in the urges of the black box and the corruptibility of our physical shell. Instead there is hope for a heaven, a pure consciousness that exists independent of time and body. We may or may not get there, but in the meantime, how does our intellect deal with the black box to make better our passage through this reality.

The longing to be free from the imperatives of the black box while on this earth has expressed itself in various cultures through the practice of contemplation. The culture that had the earliest and deepest insights into the human condition, the Indian, developed the practice of meditation for this purpose. In the West, mystics St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross wrote about losing themselves in the contemplation of God. Schopenhauer maintained that one way to be free from the slavery of the will is to lose oneself in contemplation of art.

The common thread is to let the consciousness rise above the pull of the emotions and look down on them and observe them. In doing so understand their cause and purpose and examine whether they point in a direction that leads to balance, harmony and serenity. Effectively use the higher powers of the brain, applying logic and reason to the knowledge gathered in life’s experience, to envision and design a life of fulfillment and meaning. And then move in that direction not letting the black box’s more primitive logic possibly lead to a trap of despair and sorrow.

Manny Perez
February 2018