How do aliens think?

What is it that makes your Bug-Eyed-Monster (BEM) tick? What does old slug foot want? What is the secret that every seven foot flying ant keeps in his heart of hearts?

Understanding the emotional needs of a real alien might be impossible. But we probably will never have that chance. As Science Fiction Writers we have to tell a believable story to humans who are not really concerned with the ninth level of the emotion Xirda that some alien experiences every time a cross-linked semi female comes into view. We have to tell a human story in human terms. That means human emotions.

What is the basis of human emotions?

I am not a psychologist and shouldn’t even be answering this question, but here I go anyway.

I have read a little on this and looking at things with 30 years of computer programming under my belt, I like to view psychology as a systems problem.

There is a monitor program in us that coordinates the various aspects of our thoughts and seems to explain things to the conscious mind. This monitor is not so much smart as tricky and takes the various sensory inputs and creates a coordinated world view. This is the program that is telling us we are hungry when we have no need of food. It tells us that we need that next cigarette and will even light it up without our conscious mind even being aware of the act. It is the great liar in our heads that presents us with our wants and needs. This is the program that delivers the outside world and inside feelings to the conscious mind.

Emotions are emergent behaviorisms of the higher vertebrates that convert levels of chemically induced stress into a logical syntax. Our body experiences fear - the chemically induced state of readiness associated with flight or fight - our minds interpret the fear as a recognizable mental state. There’s a feedback there from the mind - recognizing danger - to the body reacting to danger - back to the mind recognizing the body in a state of fear.

I think that emotions, although not coming directly from a logical process are the way a logical process reacts to various physical states. We describe this as feeling the emotion. We don’t create the emotion directly. Emotions happen to us. The way we receive these emotions are by way of the monitor program which may be reacting directly to actual physical chemical reactions or it may lie to us and provide emotions to the conscious that are actually created by some sub-program of which we are not aware.

What are the common human emotions? This is grist for the mill for writers and should be quite obvious.

Fear to terror, Affection to Love and then Passion, Annoyance to Anger to Rage, Humor, Happiness to Bliss, Awe to Transfiguration, Belief to Faith, and the list goes on. As a writer, your stories should be full of this stuff.

How much of this will an alien probably have?

Many aliens will have a lot in common with humans as far as their emergence from lower animals. I like to think that successful intelligent beings will be evolved from pack hunters. Humans are evolved from apes which hunted in packs and communication added new levels of coordination to the hunt. I think there are evolution pressures on pack hunting animals to get smart and communicate. Dogs and wolves are good examples of smart pack hunters that communicate fairly well. They don’t speak words, but the call to each other with barks and howls. If you have ever owned a dog, you know how expressive their barking can be. Imagine how much meaning it has to another dog that has a million years of common genetics development backing up his understanding.

So when man encounters aliens with similar physiologies, it is likely that they will have much behavior and emotion in common. Fear and love, hate and loyalty are probably very basic elements of a pack animals emotional bag.

I think love will be a common emotion. It stems from a mother child relationship that appears to be very survival oriented. All mammals seem to show levels of caring and affection for offspring which is easily extended to comrades, friends and acquaintances. I have no trouble at all understanding my cat’s love for me, even if it is at least 50% love for tuna fish in a can that only I can give her.

Friendship and affection go hand in hand with the emotion of love. Pride and Loyalty are probably pack traits. A pack animal must feel loyalty to the pack and by extension the pack leader. A pack must value its members and an individual must feel good about his own position in the pack. Of course treachery, revenge, self doubt as well as embarrassment and shame must also spring from the pack relationship.

If we are lucky enough to meet intelligent wolves or pack hunting raptors or intelligent whales on out journeys, we may be able to discuss things on an emotional level.

But take dolphins as an example. Dolphins are pack hunters. They seem to have many of the emotions we’ve been talking about. We can guess by the weight of their brains as a ratio to their body weight that they are fairly intelligent. Some guess that they might be as intelligent as humans. Some of that brain might be used, of course, in special purpose processes involved in finding and eating fish in a hostile ocean. They seem to have a language with a vocabulary, although not in the human sense of words and sentences, but they do communicate lots of information to each other. They also seem to truly like humans (there’s no accounting for taste.)

However, we have no common ground for communication. We can look each other in the eye and make sounds with our mouths that the other recognizes, but we have absolutely nothing to say to each other. The Dolphin has nothing to say to us that we could possibly understand and the human has nothing to say that the dolphin is interested in.

Dolphins and seals and walruses and whales are related in many ways to dogs. But dogs, it seems, communicate their emotions very clearly and we understand them. Dogs can follow the emotional content of most conversations better than humans can. But when it comes to a dolphin, we have no common ground. We can feel a few basic things like fear and affection when we deal with dolphins, but there is no depth.

One interesting thing, birds, with brains the size of kernel of corn, seem to communicate better than dolphins. People who own birds are always amazed at how perceptive they are. Birds show fear and love and rage and pride. Some of it is our human viewpoint finding traits that aren’t really there. But I am convinced that birds have a better designed brain than mammals and if there had been the proper evolutionary pressures, Flock Hunters would be the higher life form on earth rather than Pack Hunters.

Herd animals might work together to ensure mutual protection and in cases where the predators were exceedingly smart or dangerous, I can see how intelligence and communication might arise to out-think the enemy. Schools of fish seem to have amazing coordination and through physical cues are able to move in unison, reacting to danger almost instantly. This communication might even become intelligent under the right conditions.

Flocks of birds also seem to communicate with each other and Geese form organized groups and work together to ensure success in their migratory flights.

What about other kinds of aliens?

Intelligence might emerge in lonely hunters, but there would be no need to communicate and little use for many emotions. We could not communicate with such creatures, but it is unlikely that such aliens would be able to forge the relationships necessary to travel to the stars. Civilization is a group task. Building a space ship is a group task. Such creatures might be able to form small packs consisting of a mated pair or with young offspring where communication skills might arise. They might be able to form cooperative groups for the mutual benefit of the members, but they wouldn’t be very good at it. Humans were born for political intrigues; Intelligent Cheetahs would be dismal failures at it.

Another type of intelligence might be hive intelligence. This is almost singleton intelligence and here there might be little chance of communication. There could be an opportunity in that a hive must have very good communication between the members even though any one member might not be independently intelligent. There would not be any emotion that we could recognize, though. There is no basis for love or anger or pride. There may be fear and perhaps some kind of feeling of fulfillment for success in some endeavors.

Accidental intelligences like intelligent clams or intelligent trees might be possible, but what emotions would such creatures have? Who can say? We definitely would have no basis for communication.

In conclusion, I would guess that alien intelligences would be pack animals rather than lonely hunters or herd animals. The reason is that the pack hunters are aggressive. I think that the aliens we meet will be the sneakiest and meanest aggressors in their native environment and will take their bad attitude out into the galaxy. We will not meet nice aliens. This doesn’t mean that we won’t get along with them. We may have much in common in our history and philosophy.

Singletons would not have the resources for space travel and Hive creatures would not be motivated as much to explore just for exploration’s sake.

Yes, any alien that we meet should be approached with the utmost caution.

1 Comment

  • “Emotions are emergent behaviorisms of the higher vertebrates that convert levels of chemically induced stress into a logical syntax.”

    Emotions are survival mechanisms, nothing more than glandular secretions. Dignify it with the poetry you wish, but that’s all they are.

    “In conclusion, I would guess that alien intelligences would be pack animals rather than lonely hunters or herd animals”


    “The reason is that the pack hunters are aggressive”

    No, it’s because they cooperate and plan. These are precursors of technological intelligence.

    Intelligence evolves from the need to hunt and kill prey bigger and/or nastier than the lone hunter.

    “any alien that we meet should be approached with the utmost caution”

    Any alien civilisation with the cojones to understand and accept the massive risks of space travel is going to be hard and mean.


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I started reading Science Fiction in the 1950s. I started Writing SF in the 1960s. Then, I had a life. Now I am retired, raising chickens and keeping bees. I am still an avid reader and I have sold about 70 stories in the last 20 years.
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