A number of years ago I was talking to a friend who had gone to speak to a therapist. Their reason for going was mostly just curiosity, but they were also motivated to some degree by the unused portion of their company group benefits.
I wrote about this in the December 2012 post titled A Few Questions Worth Knowing The Answer To and focused specifically on two of the questions that my friend had found compelling enough to remember. These questions were:
- What did you go without because there was no suffering in an experience?
- What was it like to have things go bad around you without warning?
At the time my thoughts about the questions were that they were reflective and introspective. Anyone who was willing to take the time and put in the effort to answer them would stand to learn a great deal about themselves. I have not moved off of this view in the years since, but this view has expanded dramatically and I have a much better appreciation of what the therapist was trying to cause to happen by inviting my friend to consider these questions.
The brain is a very remarkable and slightly funny thing. Remarkable in just how well it creates the experience of being alive and in how it goes about doing it. The brain is an organic computer that is running chemical and cellular software that makes EVERYTHING possible. The software is a bunch of processes, which take input and generate output. One of the processes is consciousness. It receives input from a variety of sources – everything we experience, know, think, believe, feel, and understand – and the lived experience of consciousness is the output of this process. It is slightly funny because most people never notice that it is happening.
Which is a shame because when you actually notice what is happening as it is happening, it feels really good. And the more often you notice it, the greater the influence you can exert upon it.
Instead, we spend nearly all of our time on one of three different things: narcissistically obsessing about the world in terms of us being the absolute center of it, seeking out reward in terms of triggering dopamine releases in the reward centers of the brain, or spending time in a state of mild discontentment – bad enough to prevent feeling content / still / peaceful and yet not bad enough to actually do something about.
These three states, or the taking of the actions that are required to create them, are completely understandable. We ARE the center of the universe. The brain, the software it contains, the information that our senses provide, and the content of our memories combine to create a simulation of the world that is completely focused on us. I’m not sure that anyone could come-up with a better approach if tasked with finding a solution to the problem of staying alive, reaching a point of being able to reproduce, and then keeping our offspring alive long enough to become self-reliant and independent all while trying to manage the thousands of things that are simultaneously occurring and battling for scarce resources.
No matter what else life might be about, the undeniable fact, and one that is shared among all living beings, is that every single individual MUST be motivated to maintain life and to reproduce. If either one of these is missing, the individual will either die or will not pass along their genes to the next generation. The outcome is the same regardless, their genes cease to exist and the diversity of the species gene pool will be reduced.
Digging in deeper here, it becomes clear that believing that we are the center of the universe is a very effective way of ensuring that we will try to continue to live and will take the physical actions that historically lead to reproduction. The fact that we are one of 7.75 billion people alive on the planet at this moment in time, that every individual gene we have is also located in the genetic code of other human beings, or that the universe is so big that it has the effect of rendering every location in space statistically empty – three things that can also be known as fundamental and objective truths about the world – need not ever be considered. In fact, objective reality and the truth do not matter to the brain and do not need to be factored into the simulation that is running. If knowing and keeping them in mind will improve evolutionary fitness they will be, but if they do not contribute to this, and they do not, it is actually better that they are never known or, if they are uncovered, that they be ignored.
By believing that we are the center of everything, we increase the changes that we will act in a way that ensures that our genes continue to exist.
The second activity, that of seeking out the experiences that trigger the release of dopamine in our brains reward centers, is much easier to understand, at least early on in our life. Somewhere along the way, a mutation occurred in the genetic code of our ancestors that had their primitive brain release dopamine in response to the things that promote survival. Our operating system still contains the code that has us seek this out because activation of this part of the brain is associated with improved survival. Sex, eating (particularly fat and sugar), solving a problem, pattern matching of sensory information to something in long term memory, learning, and social connection are things that will trigger the release of this neurotransmitter in the reward centers of the brain in all people. These things are innately rewarding and it is easy to see how each one of them is linked to improved survival outcomes and generational gene transmission.
The reward system is an innate system and it is precoded by the time of our birth to become activated in response to certain physical interactions with the external world. However, it can be programmed to release reward chemicals to practically anything. For example, while going hungry has historically been something that will reduce the chances of surviving and is therefore not one of the innate stimulations that will cause the activation of our reward centers, we can train the brain to release dopamine in response to the sensation of being hungry IF we manufacture a meaning that we perceive as being worthy of reward. The discipline high is an example of this novel pairing.
Always keep in mind that the innate purpose or function of the reward centers is to serve as a reinforcement mechanism which will increase the reoccurrence of the activity that caused the release. Sugar and fat are high in energy and since life requires a lot of energy, it behooves us to seek out and consume as much high energy food as we can. There is a direct relationship between sugar and fat molecules and the release of dopamine making these substances at least potentially addictive. This does not mean that we are powerless to NOT eat them, just that when they enter the body, the brain will react by releasing dopamine. However, there are other innate activities that trigger the release of reward chemicals, so we can train the brain to release them in response to anything, so long as we trigger the release in close temporal proximity to the thing we want to find rewarding. This is why people can find the most banal and meaningless things rewarding. While I am not a fan of musical theatre, some people love it simply because they have trained their brain to release dopamine when they watch them.
The final thing that human beings tend to do, spending time in a state of discontentment that isn’t just enough to get them to do anything about it but is sufficient to prevent them from feeling content / still / peaceful, is more of the same. Ensuing survival is about taking specific actions quickly whenever those actions are required. Feeling fantastic or the reasonable possibility that we well feel this way – which is effectively the way we feel when whenever our reward centers become active – serves as the motivation / incentive to take action. The opposite feeling, that of physical or psychological pain, serves as the disincentive for NOT taking an action; in the case of pain, the individual is motivated to STOP any action that the brain believes is causing the pain. From a fitness perspective, the objective is the same, to trigger action that will increase the likelihood of survival. Reward is approach, expansive, and repeat while pain is retreat, constrict, and avoid.
While it is true that there can be degrees of reward and punishment, we can view both as being on or off. If reward is on, the brain learns an association between a behaviour / action and feeling good. If pain is on, the brain learns an association between a behaviour / action and feeling bad. After the learning has occurred, the approach / avoid determination will be available to the simulation that is running on the brain. This ensures that when it perceives a similar or same situation it will initiate the corresponding approach / avoid action behaviour. When neither one is perceived, no approach or retreat action will be initiated which will help the individual conserve energy; or at least not waste it by taking an action that has not been demonstrated to improve fitness outcomes. Feeling “bla” is the second most desirable state for a human being to achieve because it indicates that things are safe, survival will continue and that there is no need for any action to be taken.
In 2012, when I made the initial post, I didn’t have a clear understanding of the critical role that reward, bla, and punishment play in the brain and life of people. The cool thing is that my knowing or not knowing will make no difference in the operation of the computer and software. The brain does not get wrapped around the axle with these things and conscious awareness of what is going on is not a requirement for the system to work perfectly.
The power of the questions is their ability to cause the person to consider the incentive / disincentive that the situation represents to them. They accomplish this by taking advantage of another quality of the brain, which is the tendency for it to assume that there is an answer to every question it encounters and to automatically and unconsciously begin to try to answer it.
If we consider for any length of time the question “what did you go without because there was no suffering in an experience?” we quickly notice that the question assumes that the listener went without something because the experience was neither good nor bad. If we assume that this is true, the narrative description of what occurred was that no approach or avoid lessons were learned because they remained in the bla or neutral state. The question implies that there was a fitness lesson to be taken from the experience, but that the brain did not pick-up on it because there was no reinforcement or punishment. The event unfolded, the person lived through it, and they remain unchanged in terms of their likelihood that they would repeat it or avoid it in the future.
This is the amazing thing about the human brain and language. Unlike living beings that have smaller brains and rudimentary or not existent communication skills, the human brain is able to and will automatically begin to run different experiences on the simulation in an effort to figure out what is going on or what WOULD need to be true in order for a possible outcome to be achieved. By listening to and hearing the question, the brain parses the information and then uses the relevant parameters to try and surface an answer. Whether or not there is an actual answer never gets considered because the brain just automatically starts the process and works on generating output.
The therapist was very aware that the situation my friend was talking about is historically a situation that people find very challenging and unpleasant. My friends experience of it as neutral or bla meant that there was not going to be much learning going on and this would amount to a squandered opportunity. The question served as a trigger for the creation of a lesson that may end-up being helpful in the future.
The question “what was it like to have things go bad around you without warning?” is the second half of the same process. The language implies that something negative occurred, which primes the listeners brain to consider the punishment / avoidance aspects of psychological conditioning. It also serves to validate congruence; if the answer is something positive or negative, there is a good chance that they did not answer the first question accurately. This is a situation that the brain will not allow to continue because it does not handle inconsistency very well. Even if nothing specific happens in the moment, the brain will be activated in an attempt to reconcile the lack of congruence between the two answers.
Years later, I still believe that these two questions are fantastic. They are helpful for anyone who takes the time to answer them as they force the brain to search long term memories, run various simulations in an attempt to solve the problem, and they provide valuable feedback about the quality and nature of the experiences in the past. They are introspective and manufacture reward and punishment states to allow the person to gain new lessons and move forward having harvested the experience more completely.