Before I start, let me say that I know that what animals think and feel and whether they do it is a highly, highly debated topic. But, for this question, let us just assume that many animals think - in the form of pictorial thoughts - and can feel happy, sad, angry, scared, disgusted and surprised, just perhaps in a less complex way than we do.

There's no reason to think that this shouldn't be true, since all mammals have very similar brain structures to us (Toothed whales have even more than us) and use the same chemicals for thought and emotion.

However, it is likely that alien life, would use different chemicals, and have a very different nervous system.

So, my question is: are our emotions necessary? Are there alternative emotions which could aid a creature in survival, and are pictures the only way to think without language?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – James Aug 3 '18 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ Seal you ask a lot of questions in this post. If your bolded sentence at the end is your real question I think you are fine, but many of the questions before that are virtually impossible to answer with anything other than random quess work. I put the question on hold temporarily until we can clean things up a little, then we can open it back up once everything is clear $\endgroup$ – James Aug 3 '18 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ @James Yep, the question in bold is my real question. I edited the question to clarify that. $\endgroup$ – SealBoi Aug 3 '18 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ Seal I made an edit, I simply removed the non-bolded questions as they seem like a stream of consciousness from you that could and likely would distract from the main question (which could lead to people voting to close). If the edit substantially changes your intent, or if you just don't like it, you have the power to roll that change back. $\endgroup$ – James Aug 3 '18 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ @James Okay, no problem. So, is it cleared for reopening now, if you mind me asking? $\endgroup$ – SealBoi Aug 3 '18 at 16:25

Let's start with some basic neurophysiology (all that will follow is a simplification, but functionally correct).

There are three major areas of the brain that all work in different ways; there is the cerebellum (instinct and autonomic functions, hard-wired electrical), the limbic system (emotions, chemical) and the cerebral cortex (intellectual thought, soft-wired electrical).

Why three different systems in a single brain? The short answer is because evolution can't just shut down a species, redesign an upgrade to the brain, and restart that species. The species still has to function, so it develops a new system over the top that provides advantages over the old system.

Many animals, including insects, get by with a rudimentary cerebellum alone. It drives them to specific behaviour that increases their odds of survival, and keeps their systems functioning. (heart, muscles, et al)

The problem with that is that once you know the instinct, you can exploit it and create a set of circumstances in which the instinct works against the organism. Just take ultraviolet bug zappers for instance. Spiders (by the way) have been doing the same thing for much much longer, with webs that glow in ultraviolet, but I digress.

So, evolution builds an 'upgrade' for the brain that provides some situational overrides to instincts. It can't build it as an electrical system, that would mess up the instincts that work most of the time. So, it designs the limbic system, or reptilian brain. This is chemical in nature and allows organisms to feel emotions and react in specific ways according to environmental considerations. This is a great leap forward and allows certain animals to be more successful as their emotions can override their instincts at times to preserve the young, or push through pain to find food.

But, even that's not enough. So along comes the cerebral cortex, or mammalian brain, which not only allows for situational awareness, but actually allows us to 'program' our actions according to intellectual logic. This means that we can finally react and adapt to a changing environment within the lifetime of a single organism, rather than taking hundreds of thousands of years to do so. This makes mammals even more successful, and eventually leads to an organism that specialises in such thought - humans.

The point being, we don't know how alien brains would form. At all. What if the cerebellum in an alien species was based on programmed chemical transfer? The limbic system may not even exist and an alien may have evolved directly to a cerebral cortex model. What if the Earth's limbic system was more flexible and actually allowed for programmable emotions? The cerebral cortex probably wouldn't exist today as it would represent an added complexity that may not be required.

We break up 'thought' into concepts like instinct, emotion and reason because our brains are wired that way, but in an alien, not all of these concepts have to exist - indeed none of them may exist and their brains could have evolved along completely different lines again.

The important thing to note is that we have these 3 tiers within the brain today because our environment made this the simplest way to gain the complexity required to deliver the survive-ability outcomes that were required by humans to continue to exist and thrive. In a different environment, different stressors may apply, different 'starting' neurophysiology, different speeds at which organisms can change and still be successful. Evolution will never favour change faster than it is necessary in an organism, and never favour a change that is more complex than necessary (true, some systems seem needlessly complex, but like the brain that's largely because they're built over systems that supported previous environments; simpler systems that achieve the same end will always prevail over complex ones that aren't more effective because there's more that can go wrong).

To that end, it's entirely possible that aliens could end up with a completely different neurophysiology but by definition, that would result in a completely different psychology as well. One that may well be more pragmatic than our own.

For example, the cerebral cortex evolved after the limbic system, yet we still value our emotions despite the cerebral cortex evolving primarily to override it in certain situations. We fear and devalue sociopathy, but from certain perspectives, it makes the people who have it more 'successful'. I'm not saying that's a good thing, I'm merely pointing out that we are confused ourselves about the relative merits of our own thought chains. Aliens with a completely different brain design are just as likely to suffer from the same level of confusion, just against concepts of thought that we have no frame of reference to even begin to understand.

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer, but I would alter the "evolution would never push" part. Evolution doesnt know about complexity. As you mention, the current brain is build on top of already existing systems, making large parts needlessly complex compared to a designed brain for that purpose. It'll randomly mutate, most of which will be detrimental but a few are beneficial. The beneficial one's will increase the chance that particular individual gets mature offspring which will spread through the rest of the population, but a simpler evolution might not be easy/attainable through one mutation and needs more. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Aug 3 '18 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ I love this division of the functioning into 3 systems that use different mechanisms to influence behavior so as not to derail the others. Makes a lot of sense. $\endgroup$ – Mike Wise Aug 3 '18 at 15:15

There is a number of emotions that are essential for survival:

  • Fear keeps a creature away from other dangerous creatures or doing dangerous things. A reaction to pain can be observed in very simple creatures like worms. As soon as a creature can cognitively connect pain and its cause, you get the emotion of fear. The fear of feeling pain makes creatures avoid damage to the body.
  • Positive excitement (which includes happiness) is the fundamental function of the brains reward system. Eating highly nutricious food makes us happy because it keeps the individual alive*. Sexual activity makes us happy because it keeps our species alive. Social interactions make social animals happy because it keeps the family alive. Drugs make us happy because they hijack the reward system... (* Please don't start any discussions about obesity)
  • Negative excitement (including anger and agression) makes a creature defend their food, territory, mate or family. All things that fundamentally secure the survival of the individual and/or the species.
  • Disgust keeps you away from possibly hazardous substances, germs and pests. This is a feeling that probably only creatures with a certain intelligence have. In humans, some things cause disgust on an instinctual level (like maggots in flesh, the smell of death) and some things are learned to be perceived as disgusting (like spiders, certain foods).

I don't think images is the only way of thinking without speech. You can also think in temperatures, directions and times. I'm pretty sure a bat can think in sonar echoes, because that's the way it experiences its environment.

Addendum: Let's make a little experiment. Imagine lice crawling through your hair. Now imagine a spider slowly walking from your shoulder up your neck into your hair.

Feel the tingling? You just thought in physical sensations.

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    $\begingroup$ "I'm pretty sure a Bat thinks in sonar echoes, because that's the way it experiences its environment." It's a common misconception that bats are blind, but actually, they can see almost as well as we can. Regardless, I do agree with your core point, as while in a pitch black cave for instance, a bat probably does think in sonar echoes. +1 $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Aug 3 '18 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ there are even blind humans that are very capable of echolocation and therefore must also have some way to think in that as well $\endgroup$ – Ivo Beckers Aug 3 '18 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ I've seen way too many videos of dogs and cats sniffing something and jumping back, as if revolted, to think that disgust isn't an emotion which animals feel as well. Though admittedly, for lower lifeforms, fear and disgust may not be so easily distinguished. $\endgroup$ – Neil Aug 3 '18 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ Nice answer. I don't think pain would be classified as an emotion. It is a stimulus. Fear of pain would be an emotion though. $\endgroup$ – Tyler S. Loeper Aug 3 '18 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ To expand on the sonar point. I've met a legally(but not totally) blind person who thinks in colors, and a totally blind person who thinks in sounds. I suspect a creature will prioritize their mode of thought on whichever sensory organ provides the most detailed information. Since you can see a predator coming long before it's close enough to hear over that hurricane overhead, i suspect most creatures will prioritize the sensor that is hardest to obfuscate over anything else that can be more easily and regularly impeded. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Aug 3 '18 at 14:35

Thinking is just recreating sensations inside your head. Most people are used to using speech to communicate, so they work though concepts by "thinking" spoken word.

"Are pictures the only way to think without language?" - if someone was blind and deaf, would they be any less capable of thinking? No, but they would "think" in braille or sign-language hand positions.

I can "think" smells, tastes, textures - if an alien could sense magnetic fields, then they could think those too.

Humans from different cultures have different ways of thinking - global communications has brought us all closer together, but there are still concepts that one country/culture would consider "natural" and others would find inconceivable.

You are treating Emotions as "standardised", but that is - again - a language and cultural thing. The German concept of "Schadenfreude" has no 'direct' translation. Greek has 4 different words for "love" depending on context and circumstance - to them, these are 4 seperate, distinct, emotions.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting point about thinking when deaf. According to an excellent New Scientist excerpt I've just read there's evidence that deaf people have difficulty with working memory...until they learn sign language, suggesting that thinking using words is a key aspect of human working memory. Study here: frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01047/full $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Aug 3 '18 at 12:19

I don't think you are thinking about thoughts correctly. I am an AI researcher, familiar with the field. It is provably true that the human brain uses sensory information to discern patterns; about the smallest component of the brain is the neuron, and this is a biological thing that is a simple pattern matcher: It can have anywhere from a few, to tens of thousands of inputs (from sensory or other neurons), and when certain patterns appear on its inputs exceeding some threshold, the neuron fires. "I saw this pattern". The signal it outputs goes to other neurons, often many of them, as inputs to their pattern recognition.

Together these build up a "model" of something, which may be an idea, a thing, the state of mind of another person. When a model is activated that is a pattern matching too; and this is how thoughts come to be.

Do we think in words and sentences? It may seem so, but not so much. When you see a car, all the sensory inputs about it trigger a set of neurons in your brain that correspond to your unique internal model of a car (very similar to to others, but unique because it depends on your unique set of car experiences), what to expect from it, how to spell it, how to say it, everything you know about cars is "primed". One of those things is the sound of the word "car", and when that group of neurons gets a signal, you feel like you heard the word car, even though the inputs did not come from your ears. You don't think in sounds and sentences, those are just linked to models in your brain that are being activated. So the same neurons that fire when you recognize a real sound, can be fired by other neurons that recognize a "car" by sight or by reading the word, so it feels almost the same as if you heard it.

The same thing goes for concepts; at the bottom these are groups of neurons that specify relationships between things. "Fast" is a concept, and there are neurons in our brain that can apply a relative speed modifier to all kinds of things, from a fast river, to a fast airplane, to a fast mouse. You might even "see" those things visually, when memories of each are triggered, they also trigger thousands of neural clusters that normally get triggered by the sight. The sight itself is not stored, only the neural consequences are stored, but either way, it feels the same: What you "see" is also just neurons matching patterns, firing, and activating clusters.

It is unlikely aliens would "think" differently than this, but of course their sensory organs may not have anything to do with sound, sight, or even smell. Like ours, their sensory organs would also be distilled into electro-chemical signals, that get pattern matched, and they would also build up models of things that exist in the world for them. Just like us. Their thinking would likely be, like ours, a kind of perpetual chain reaction of modeling the real world, that triggers models, and those trigger models, ad infinitum. The point of these models is mostly to predict the future, what to expect, and whether various actions will promote or prevent what is going to happen.

As for emotions, I would propose they are pretty much the same as what we can find in the animal kingdom; evolution requires certain things like a desire for sex to procreate, a desire to survive involving fear, and fight or flight responses, etc. Not every animal feels "love" or "friendship", not every animal craves company or feels loneliness, not every animal feels compassion or wants to help.

That said, technology is likely something only collective social animals could develop; so I would say any technological species is (as we humans are) likely some kind of tribal, herding or community animal both giving and receiving support from others, thus with instincts of both sharing with others, and punishing free riders. This social nature would also seem to be a prerequisite for developing a complex language, raising and teaching children, all of which promote depth of memory and intellect for developing social norms, e.g. developing unique models of other individuals to "understand" them, meaning predict their behavior, reactions, etc. Of course sociality alone is not enough to ensure high intelligence or technology; wolves are social, chipmunks are social, elephants are social without technology. But I would wager sociality is a necessary ingredient, along with others.


I am probably the nearest thing you will meet to an intelligent alien in this respect, although I assure you I am fully human (check your tinfoil hat everyone).

Between autism that I was born with and brain injury that happened later in life, I can tell you that emotions are very important. My emotional processing capacity is nearly zero, but my problem solving capacity is at the top end of the curve.

Part 1: Emotions

First of all, emotions are crucial to encoding memories. In the absence of emotion, it is very difficult to form memories. That includes learning new skills, patterning behaviors, or recalling that you just told that one story you know five minutes ago.

Second, processing emotions is crucial to social interaction. Without the ability to experience emotion, you also lack the capability of interpreting emotions. You can't tell when you've made a faux pas, or when someone else is enjoying themselves. You can't "take a hint" because the "hint" doesn't register. On the other hand, you aren't offended in the least when you're told bluntly "go away".

Without emotional attachments, when people are not physically present they are abstractions. It means that you don't stay up late worrying about your loved ones when they are travelling, but it also means that they feel alienated because it never occurs to you to ask after them. When you do ask, it feels forced and awkward to all concerned, because it it not spontaneous.

Emotions are crucial to prioritization and decision making. Given a scenario where the house is burning down and you want a sandwich at the same time, the priority is obvious when there is no immediacy to the situation.

Without emotions, when under pressure you are equally likely to freeze (unable to decide), choose the sandwich, or choose getting out of the house. With emotions, you can make that decision in a snap, even under pressure, and then justify it intellectually later. Research suggests that this is actually how most decisions are made.

Without emotions, it is difficult to stay focused on any one task. Every interruption has the same priority as your primary task. Strict schedules as employed by some autistic people (see Rain Man for a good depiction - "Wednesday is fish sticks") are a mechanism for compensating for prioritization issues.

Without emotion, facts with consequences are experienced simply as facts. This makes customer relations difficult in a business setting. Going from a bare fact to reassuring the customer takes empathy. It's a huge step from "Your system is running well over its intended capacity" to "we need to add nodes to the cluster".

Part 2: Verbalization

With the loss of 50% of my verbal skills, even though my problem solving skills are in the top percentile, I am unable to understand a computer application design that I wrote and built just 10 years ago. I can read it, I can say the words, I can even tell you the simplified flavor of the application, but I am not able to comprehend the algorithm sufficiently to reproduce it (even though it was "just a lot of simple" to me at the time.

While it is true that I can understand things I can't verbalize, I find I need to have a graphic in front of me for any serious thinking now. Often no one but me will ever understand the scribbles I make on the white board, but that compensates for the loss of language skills and (to some extent) the loss of memory encoding that go with the brain injury.


What are emotions for?

Emotions exist to control our behavior in ways that are evolutionarily useful. Like @pojo-guy said up above, emotions make it possible to act without having to rationally evaluate all the possibilities (which will take too long).

Fear exists to save your life by getting you away from things that are usually dangerous. That's why people have innate fears of insects and snakes, and (less so) of the dark and heights and so on.

Curiosity exists to help you luck into finding useful things, like food or shelter, and to avoid unpleasant surprises (like those leaves rustling that turns out to be a predator stalking you).

Anger makes us resist when someone does something we don't like, and keeps us from being pushed around.

Guilt prevents us from doing things that are harmful to the survival of our kind in the long term. It serves to promote social behavior.

This shortcut means aliens will likely have something like emotions

Emotions are good at providing close-enough-to-correct behavior very quickly, most of the time. It requires a lot more and more complex brainpower to do things rationally, and the currently-known models are slower to respond than emotional responses.

Therefore, even if alien emotions aren't implemented in the same neurological structure as our own, convergent evolution will likely create things that are enough like emotions that they might as well be called emotions.

Yes, aliens might have alien emotions

Many of these emotions will be common to most forms of life. There will be many biospheres like ours, where existence hangs by a thread and every moment might be your last. But there could still be many alternate drives which get regulated by other, alien emotions.

Hyper-intelligent creatures may dim or eliminate emotion

We can only really hold one thought at a time. We can only remember a few things at a time. We cannot simultaneously rationally evaluate the consequences of all the various actions we might take to solve a problem; we use our emotions to guide us through them.

This means we often don't arrive at the optimal solution for whatever problem we're having. A race with much more advanced brains might be able to rationally evaluate a lot more situations and come to dispassionate analytical solutions quickly enough to compete with the speed of an emotional response. In which case, the rational mind will produce better results, so being ruled by emotion would put them at a competitive disadvantage. If such a race had any emotions to start with, their influence will grow more and more muted over time.

If you haven't, you might want to read Blindsight by Peter Watts. It explores a similar idea.

Very different demands on a creature may produce different emotions

A race of intelligent trees might not have much need for fear. Disease and fire would be about the only things that could harm one.

Significantly different social structures might also result in a similar effect. Ants, for example, are all clones, and they will fight to the death for their colony. So if a social hive-like species became intelligent, their emotional state might be very different. They might not know fear at all, but might emotionally react to things that would threaten the colony: an irrational drive to seek out new sources of food constantly (as opposed to hunger which is about what I need right now). An alienation drive, essentially xenophobia as a fundamental emotion, making them wary of anything that is not of their Hive. The urge to defend anything Hive-related to the death, from any perceived threat, under any circumstances.


I can imagine that certain base emotions pain/pleasure/aggression/lust/digust may be likely to have common analogues with other alien forms of life that deal with comparable, possibly universal, challenges of survival. They may have other, visceral emotions as well - dogs, for example, supposedly have a whole range of emotional states pertaining to their sense of pack and hierarchy, for which there is no clear human analogue. But also, there is much more to emotion than the base visceral responses. Humans have a great many complex emotions - the feeling of joy from listening to beautiful music, love for close friend/partner, surprise at the unexpected, laughter at a joke etc. It may be that all of these can be reduced to subtle formulations of more visceral emotions but I really think that the whole is much more as the sum of it's parts in the way that you cannot really understand consciousness by considering how neurons trigger each other. So in conclusion, if these aliens are social, I don't think there's any real restriction on what complex emotional states they might experience. The challenge is really how you describe them - it seems likely that they might be so alien to us that we really couldn't meaningful empaphise with them or understand what material conditions induce them. Imagine explaining what laughter feels like and why you make that funny noise in response to certain puns, to an alien with no capacity to experience humour! Maybe these aliens, have strange social rituals that combine noises with gestures that are informed by the surroundings that they are in - this forms a whole complex language in and of itself that is pleasurable pair bonding. Like hugging and chatting.


Humans discuss a lot of things regardless of how much basis it has in fact. Look for example at flat earthers, chemtrails or more mundane things like a farmer who wants to get the most out of his pigs and needs to sway public opinion by formulating animals have no feelings so he can lock them up in the most terrible circumstances to fatten them.

Animals feel emotions. They are a most basic thing that helps keep us alive. YEIm covered those already. Even bacteria essentially portray things like fear when they attempt to avoid a White bloodcell chasing them. Your alien species would perhaps use different chemicals and nervous systems, but the interpretation of those chemicals and nervous output remains the same: if you eat something good it doesnt matter if your body is build to send chemical A or B or Z, as long as your brain/body has a positive attitude because of it, its an emotion. And is happiness different for an alien than for us? No, as its goal is the same, only the expression (facial, bodily, languange etc) can be different.


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