Marvin Minsky's “The Emotion Machine”: Chapter 2 “Playing With Mud”

Original author: Marvin Minsky
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2.1. Playing with mud

“It's not just learning things that matter. It's learning what to do with what you teach and knowing why you learn all these important things. ”- Norton Jaster, short story The Phantom Tollbooth

A child named Carol is playing with mud. Equipped with a fork, spoon and cup, her task is to bake an imaginary pie, in the same way as her mother cooks. Let's assume she plays alone and imagine three things that can happen to her:

She plays alone . She wants to fill her cup with dirt and first does it with her fork, but she fails because the dirt seeps through the cloves of the fork. She is disappointed and feels frustration. But, when she succeeds in conceived through the use of a spoon, Carol is satisfied and feels satisfaction.

What can Carol learn from this situation? She gained knowledge through trial and error, that the forks are not very adapted to carry dirt. But thanks to her experience with a spoon, she gained the knowledge that spoons are a good tool for transporting fluid. Thanks to errors, we understand which method does not work - while success teaches us which method will bring success. [Explanations in §9-2.]

Notice that Carol did this when she worked alone - and gained new knowledge on her own. In the case of trial and error, she did not need a teacher to help.

A stranger scolds her. Suddenly, the stranger rebukes her: "This is an inappropriate act." Carol feels excitement, anxiety and fear. Overcoming fear and the desire to run away, she delays the fulfillment of her current goal - and runs away to look for her mother.

What can Carol understand from this situation? She may not understand how to work with mud, but she can classify this place as dangerous. Also, too many of these terrible events can make it less adventurous.

Her mother rebukes her . Carol returns to her mother for help, but instead of protection, her parent blames her. “What a terrible mess you made! Look what you have done with your things and face. I can hardly look at you! ” Carol, ashamed, begins to cry.

What can Carol understand from this situation? She will be less likely to play with dirt. If the parent prefers instead to praise her, she will feel pride instead of shame - and in the future she will be more inclined to start this game. In the face of guilt or reproach from her parents, she realizes that her goal is not very good for realization.

Think about how many emotional experiences a child gets involved in thousands of minutes of every day! In this very short story, we touched on such experiences as satisfaction, aspiration, and pride — emotions that we value as positive. We also mentioned shame and shame - and fear, restlessness, and anxiety - all the feelings that we consider negative. What functions can these various states of mind have? Why did they turn out to be in opposite pairs? How can physical systems in our brains reproduce such sensations and thoughts? This book will try to answer many of these questions, but this chapter will mainly focus on some ideas about the functions of our children’s early attachments to other people.

It’s clear that attachment to adults helps young animals survive through nutrition, comfort, and protection from threats. However, this chapter claims that these special feelings of pride and shame play a unique and peculiar role in how we develop new kinds of goals. And due to the fact that the minds of adults are much more complicated, we will start by discussing the actions of children.

2.2 Applications and objectives

“Never let your sense of morality stop you from doing the right thing”
- Isaac Asimov

Some of our strongest emotions pass when we are in the presence of the person to whom we are attached. Being exalted or accused of the people we love, we do not feel flattered or dissatisfied; We tend to feel proud or ashamed. This section will suggest some possible reasons why we may have these specific feelings, as well as some ways that may be involved in how our values ​​and goals develop.

Most other mammals, soon after birth, can move around and follow their mothers, but human children are especially helpless. Why are our babies forced to grow so slowly? In part, this may be due to the fact that their large brain needs more time to mature. Also, since the use of more universal brains led to the creation of complex societies, our children had to develop new ways to effectively “load” knowledge; they no longer have time to learn through trial and error.

One way to learn faster was to develop improved abilities to observe and describe what other adults do. Another, newest invention was “learning through storytelling” - the use of various expressions, which ultimately led to the creation of our languages. Both of these accomplishments were further enhanced by two complementary events: children became increasingly concerned about how parents react to their behavior, and parents became increasingly concerned about their children's well-being.

Both of these events are powerful means to capture other people's attention. For example, our babies are born with screams that awakened their parents from deep sleep. These screams cannot be ignored, because in comparison with other loud sounds, they exploit the connection with the experience of pain, which activates powerful means to find ways to eliminate these stimuli. Another similar system makes children feel anxious when their parents go too far - and people’s parents feel a similar sense of pain when they lose information about their children’s whereabouts. We can observe how some of these systems can work by revising some of Carol’s training scenarios.

In the scenario where Carol played alone, when using a fork did not give results in filling her cup. Her frustrated condition allowed her to gain knowledge that she should not use that method of filling the cup again. But when she got a satisfied state thanks to her successful experience with a spoon, her satisfaction helped her to understand that this meta is much better to use - so the next time she wants to fill a cup, she will know more about how to do this.

In this case, Carol was trained using trial and error, without any help from a teacher who would help her. What could motivate her to continue to persist in achieving the goal, despite the first disappointing results? In paragraph 9-2, we return to the discussion of why we sometimes put up with troubles that arise.

In the script, when a stranger appeared, Carol felt fear. This led her to search for escape routes and parental protection.

This situation probably had no effect on her learning goal of moving the dirt into the cup — and most likely taught her to beware of this place. Next time she will play in a safer place.

In the scenario, when Carol's mother scolded her, the child felt shame - a special kind of emotion. This changed the nature of what she learned: she changed her goals, instead of changing her methods!

Why did Carol get completely different knowledge after censuring her mother? This accusation made the child experience the following sensation: “I should not have set such inappropriate goals.” But when her mother admires her, Carol feels that her goal was worthy. It is one thing to find out how to get what you want, and another is to find out what you should want. In practical training by trial and error, you improve your skill to achieve the goals that you adhere to - for example, by braiding new subgoals to it. But when your feelings of “self-knowledge” are prompted, you can probably change these goals yourself or make changes to related sub-goals.

Trial and error can teach us new ways to achieve those goals that we already adhere to.

The accusation and praise associated with the result of the activity teach us what goals we can get rid of and which ones to keep.

This suggests that pride and shame play a special role in what we learn. They help us learn “what it means in the end, of course” ('ends') instead of “what it means” ('means'). Listen to Michael Lewis, who describes some of the amazing effects of shame:

“Shame is manifested when an individual judges his actions as a failure to comply with his own standards, rules and goals, and gives them a global assessment. A person who is ashamed wants to hide, disappear or die. This is an extremely negative and painful experience that interrupts existing behavior and causes confusion in thoughts and inability to speak. The body of a person experiencing shame seems compressed, as if disappearing from his own eyes and the eyes of others. Due to the intensity of emotional experience and the widespread attack on themselves, all that these people can do in shame is to try to get rid of this feeling. ”

But when do we feel just such sensations in intensity? They only manifest themselves when we are in a society of people whom we respect or are in a society of people among whom we want to be respected. This suggests that shame and pride can be associated with the way in which we achieve our higher goals, and that the achievement of these goals is largely influenced by those to whom we experience a sense of attachment - in any case, this is the case for early, “formative" years of life.

  • What are goals and how do they work?
  • What are the intervals of these “formative” years?
  • To whom are our children attached?
  • When and how do we outgrow our sense of affection?
  • How do they help establish our value?

We almost always pursue some goals. Anytime you are hungry, we try to find food. When we sense danger, we try to avoid it. When we feel offended, we may desire revenge. Sometimes you focus on doing a job, or suppose you are looking for ways to avoid it. We use words such as trying, making efforts, wanting, aiming, searching and wanting so often that it seems that our brain is controlled by a set of goals.


The following describes a very simple idea of ​​what the words want and desire can mean:

You “want” to reach situation G when some kind of active mental process works in order to reduce the difference between situation G and the situation you are in now.

Later, in paragraph 6-3, we will see this representation is much more powerful than it seems at first glance. For example, when there are several things that should be removed, then achieving goal G can take several steps. For example, suppose you are hungry and hungry, but you only have a can of soup. In this case, you should find some tool to open this jar, and then try to find a bowl and spoon, and then you will want to eat. Each of these “needs” stems from some differences between the situation in which you find yourself and which you want to achieve - so that each such difference in situations becomes the aim of your original goal.


Of course, you first need to draw up a plan for all these tasks — and creating these plans can sometimes involve substantial parts of the remnants of your mind.

Everyman: Why do we focus so much on goals, as if everything we do is done purposefully? Sometimes we simply react to what is happening around, or we execute old, familiar algorithms, and sometimes we simply dream and fantasize, or aimlessly imagine things.

It will be extremely difficult to prove that any human activity is completely devoid of any goals, because, as Sigmund Freud observed, some of our mental processes can work to hide the main motives and goals from ourselves. But in any case, we need more understanding about how we formulate such intentions.

The most common theory of how people learn is what we call trial and error. This theory describes how Carol studied when she played alone, when she played with herself, filling a cup. She was annoyed when she couldn’t achieve her goal with a fork, but was satisfied when she used a spoon — so the next time she wants to fill the cup, she’s more likely to know what to do. It seems like common sense - we learn from mistakes and successes, but we need a theory of how this can work.

Student: I assume that her brain forms a connection between her goal and the actions that helped her achieve her goal.

Good, but it is extremely vague. Can you talk more about how this works?

Student: Perhaps Carol began with some goals that were around her, but then, when she succeeded in using a spoon, she somehow combined her goal “Fill the cup” with the goal of “Use the Spoon”. Also, when she didn’t succeed with the plug, she created an “unsuitable” relationship with the goal of “Use the Plug” to prevent this event from being used again. Then, the next time she wants to fill the cup, she will first try to use the sub-target with a spoon.


That would be a good start, and I would like to mention these compounds “not good”. This is important because we must not only learn how to do things that work, but also we must always avoid the most common mistakes.

However, while these types of theories can help explain how we connect our goals that we already have, it does not answer questions such as: “How do we set new goals that are not sub-goals of existing goals?” or, more generally expressed: “How do we learn new ideas and skills?”

I do not remember many such discussions in books on academic psychology. In the following sections, we will discuss that we cannot acquire our highest-level values ​​in the same way as we learn other things, that is, learn from experience.

Thanks for the translation, Stanislav Sukhanitsky, who responded to my call in the "previous chapter". Who wants to help with the translation - write in a personal email or e-mail

By the way, we launched the translation of another cool book - “The Dream Machine: The History of the Computer Revolution” .

Table of Contents for The Emotion Machine
Chapter 1. Falling in Love
The Love
Of The Sea Of Mental Mysteries
Moods and Emotions
Infant Emotions
Seeing a Mind as a Cloud of Resources
Adult Emotions
Emotion Cascades
Playing with Mud
Attachments and Goals

Attachment-Learning Elevates Goals
Learning and pleasure
Conscience, Values ​​and Self-Ideals
Attachments of Infants and Animals
Who are our Imprimers?
Self-Models and Self-Consistency
Public Imprimers
Chapter 7. Thinking.
Chapter 8. Resourcefulness.
Chapter 9. The Self.

about the author


Marvin Lee Minsky (born Marvin Lee Minsky; August 9, 1927 - January 24, 2016) is an American scientist in the field of artificial intelligence, co-founder of the Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [ Wikipedia ]

Interesting facts:

  • Minsky was friends with the critic Harold Bloom of Yale University, who spoke of him as nothing more than "the sinister Marvin of Minsky."
  • Isaac Asimov described Minsky as one of two people who are smarter than himself; the second, in his opinion, was Karl Sagan.
  • Marvin is a robot with artificial intelligence from the Douglas Adams cycle of hitchhikers in the galaxy and the movie Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (film).
  • Minsky has a contract to freeze his brain after death in order to be "resurrected" in the future.
  • In honor of Minsky, the dog is named the main character in the movie Tron: Legacy. [ Wikipedia ]

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