Artist and filmmaker John Koenig is inventing a bunch of words to better capture various higher-order emotions. He calls it “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”. Here, ‘sorrows’ doesn’t have quite the traditional meaning, instead denoting:
1. an unspoken intensity of feeling.
2. a spark of transcendence that punctuates the flatlining banality of everyday life.
3. a healthy kind of ache—like the ache in your muscles after hard exercise—that reminds you that your body exists.
Koenig says that he has chosen to focus on emotions towards the negative, or at least bittersweet, end of the spectrum because positive ones tend to evaporate when we begin to inspect them.
I don’t know if he knows it or not, but I’m pretty sure the fact that it is easier to grab and examine negative emotions has a basis in neurophysiology. Don’t cite me here because it’s been a long, long time since I’ve read this research, but if I recall correctly the nervous system has fairly sharp and distinguishable modes corresponding to negative emotions but only a generalized mode for the warm glow of positive emotions.
Why in this subjective landscape is happiness a relatively uniform river flowing amongst sharply-distinguished nations of misery and melancholy?
If I had to venture some armchair evolutionary psychology, I’d suggest that it’s because negative emotions are more important for survival. When you’re happy things in life are probably going pretty well, and there just isn’t much need to have tools you can use to pick those feelings apart.
If you have reason to be sad, miserable, or afraid, however, then having a way to parse these emotions and find their source could be advantageous.
Besides just being a beautiful little project, I think this might have actual research relevance, because all the natural languages I’m familiar with are fairly impoverished with respect to the introspective frameworks they provide.
Rationality, reflectivity, and secular mysticism would be easier to teach if we had a shared language for certain kinds of complex internal experiences.
For example, here is a coined word for an emotion I previously had to try to describe circuitously:
n. a moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored—an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.
I have had this happen to me a handful of times throughout my life and it has always been an experience so powerful it borders on the religious. I was never able to capture exactly what it felt like, but now that I have a word for it, I can try cultivate it.
Okay then, what are some neologisms that might be useful to an aspiring rationalist?
How about a word for what happens when an important piece of information simply fails to makes its way up to the level of your conscious awareness?
n. A mental event during which something you should have considered simply fails to occur to you. Not like a thought you’re actively flinching away from, just a bubble that burst well below the surface.
A related idea is when you do manage to avoid agnosis but then you miss some obvious corollary:
n. Also known as implication blindness. Occurs when you fail to consider one or more alternatives or possible outcomes of a situation.
Or, do you ever hear a parent, sibling, teacher, or spouse in your head, even years after they’re no longer a part of your life? What should we call that?
n. A simulation of a significant person that you carry around with you. It can be a rich sub-personality that you regularly interact with or just a disembodied voice chiming in here and there with advice, admonishment, or commentary.
See also: Tulpa
Why would this matter? For the same reason that words always matter: like inventing a handle you can use to break off and carry around pieces of fog, words limn the contours of experiences, thoughts, concepts etc., giving shape to the nebulous and making otherwise hard-to-pin-down things easier to teach, aim towards, or avoid.