I would like us to make an exercise of thought together. Let’s try to transpose ourselves to the not-so-distant future, where supposedly a new type of pill has been invented that suppressed your ability to build long-term memories. It lasts a few hours, after which your memory-building ability is fully restored and you suffer no side-effects. Sounds nice? I named it, for simplicity’s sake, the "Memento pill" from the poor guy (Leonard) that Guy Pierce was playing in the excellent movie Memento and was unable to build any new memories.
Now… is this a trait that somebody would like to have? Would such a pill become a successful, marketable product? It sure didn’t work very well for Leonard in the movie; it was much more a curse than a blessing. Nevertheless, I have some arguments to convince you otherwise, and I’m gonna try.
You see, I start from a core issue at the foundation of human existence regarding happiness
whatever gave you pleasure this time is bound to give you a bit less pleasure the next time you experience it.
You might not like what you’re reading, you might even try & find a few exceptions… but this is a general rule and it is very, very difficult to circumvent it in the long term. You can intuitively verify its validity by taking a memory trip back to your childhood, where you were able to take joy in the little things. Every new toy gave you pleasure (for a while), every new kid was a friend that you could enjoy playing together, every new place you went was a marvelous set of new experiences that unfolded as you explored it. But now… what about now? Everything may seem as one of the same, the people that can really give you pleasure are very few, the places you go & visit are not that awe-inspiring anymore, the experiences you live in your daily life are repeating, the salary you get deposited at the end of the month feels nothing like the first salary you got in your teen years where you first picked up a summer job, the sex with your partner has lost its spark, heck you’re even trying hard nowadays to find a good movie to watch that is not one-of-the-same-old. I hope I proved my point.
So, coming back to the pill, let’s say now that you have the opportunity to switch off your memory building ability for a while. This can be very inconvenient or even dangerous in some cases, like your neighbor asking you to lend him $100 for a few days, or your child asking you to pick him up from school in the afternoon because the schoolbus isn’t available today.
At the same time, I see some very good opportunities for using this pill, and these can have staggering differences to our long-term happiness, if done correctly. They must be experiences that are time-boxed, in relative isolation and oriented towards pleasure. The first that comes to mind is… sex. Let’s say that you and your partner pop one of those pills everytime before doing the boogie! Everytime is going to be just like your first time, giving you a supposedly endless well of pleasure that can fuel your love for many years to come! I know that communication is the best recipe for marriage success, but… a lustful night every other night that feels like new every time should be a close second.
And it doesn’t have to be only about sex. You could do that even before watching a movie. That way you could experience intense emotions with every new thriller, laugh with the same comedy jokes again and again, etc.
You see? Such an invention would have the potential to multiply your opportunities to receive pleasure from the world till the end of your days. Who needs drugs then? The world is full of pleasure around us, and it would remain to be so, by this minor tweaking of our brain.
Convinced? Now let’s sit tight and wait, until a pharma company invents it 🙂
Memories are stored inside our brain. The brain is housed inside our body. Our body is our own; we "own" our body and are in control of it. It obeys to our commands, right? So it should be natural that our memories, since they are ours, should be something that we can use as we wish and control, just as our body. We should be able to access it at free will. It’s like reading a book right? If I want to turn to page 27 and start reading from then, I should!
Well, as you have probably understood from the title of the article, I’m trying to imply here that the complete opposite is true… The memories of our brain do not belong to us and we cannot access them at free will! Instead, they are kind of locked inside our brain and are fed to us only on a need-to-know basis! We cannot choose to activate a part of them unless the mechanism of thought works in a specific way to signify that there is an incentive to access this part (we have something to gain out of it). Then and only then we focus our attention (Battery in Noesis terms) on this memory and start to enrich it until we receive the pleasure we wanted (or avert the discomfort we were worried about). Once this is done, we lose again the ability to access this part of our brain, because as we said it’s on a need-to-know basis 🙂
But wait a minute, you might say: "I can remember what I ate yesterday evening with a lot of detail and I can continue thinking about it for as long as I like! I am the owner of my memories and can bend them at will".
"Sure you’re right", I would reply. "But the fact that you’ll continue thinking about yesterday’s dinner long and hard will only be done because I challenged you for it and thus provided you an incentive for this action. In other words, we return to the need-to-know basis. You will get a prolonged access to this memory because you need to prove me wrong and get some pleasure out of it. Once you think you thought long enough about it and proved your point, again then you stop!"
And, by the way, yesterday’s dinner was a location in your memory palace primed by me! If I told you about thinking your math teacher at school, you would be involuntarily diverted to think about this. The same if I had asked you about your favorite animal instead, and so on…
The point I’m trying to prove here is that we don’t have free access to our own memory and we do access it only when the external stimuli (e.g. an article you’re reading on noesistheory.com) provide as with an incentive (Driving Pocket in Noesis terms) to access a very specific part of our memory (be it yesterday’s dinner or our math teacher or our favorite animal, or other).
Of course our mind is a minefield of potential pains or pleasures that we may experience, and that’s why many stimuli from the environment trigger such reactions and we are forced to activate parts of our memory to think and to act for maximizing our pleasure potential. This might cause us to believe that we are the masters of our brain, but instead it was the external stimuli that triggered those reactions; we never had free will over it.
As we have already discussed, experiences from our interaction with the world (what I usually call external stimuli) give us hints that a potential discomfort (or pleasure, but for this post I’ll be focusing on negative experiences) are upcoming…
In this case a Driving Pocket (DP) is activated, which is our mind’s method of focusing our attention into resolving this problem before it even occurs, i.e. we’re trying to alter the future towards our advantage.
According to how big the discomfort is expected to be, the DPs are correspondingly large and will also dissipate more slowly. This is an evolutionary advantage, because it allows us to put our energy where it counts more (in the big DPs) and because the big DPs need time to dissipate, it secures us enough dedication of our most precious resource, our brain’s problem-solving attention mechanism, to maximize the probability of solving the problem.
In order for the problem to go away, we have 3 options:
1) either let it dissipate with time… We already discussed this, time heals all wounds and all that. Actually this is not a solution.
2) or we solve it by connect this disturbing issue with a comforting thought that reduces our worry. E.g. "oh yes, I remember now that I turned off the water heater before leaving the house"
3) or we solve it by altering our environment to stop the disturbance. E.g. I get up and turn off this annoying music on the radio.
The issue with these options is that sometimes the 2 latter solutions are not always easy/possible to find, especially in traumatic experiences which create very big/extensive DPs. I will go to the extremes, to illustrate the point: so when a child was molested, when a loved one is dead, when somebody had a disfiguring accident… it’s not really easy to find solutions for that. There are not many comforting thoughts strong enough to overpower the big DPs that is troubling the mind of the individual. And there are no actions that can simply bring back to life a relative of yours. I believe you get the point.
This causes the following effect in our mind: the DP is created, it tries & tries again to find a solution (with a thought or an action) but it fails. In the end it will dissipate for the time being, but it will not have been resolved.
And now comes the other feature of our brain mechanism: paths that have already been activated/traversed are much easier in the near future to be activated again. And DPs that have not been resolved will also be reactivated as soon as the related stimuli/patterns/thoughts/experiences come to mind.
In plain words, because we left unresolved this dangling issue at the corner of our mind, the next time we see/hear/experience anything remotely similar to this, the brain pathways towards this will be reactivated and the DP will be turned on again.
Thus the brain enters into a new attempt to resolve them problem. Which again evolutionary might be the right thing to do because you might have the opportunity to tackle it in a new environment, with a potentiall different mental state and fresh ideas. But when we’re talking about those big, negatively influential experiences, it’s quite probable that this new effort (and many other similar efforts in the future) will not prove fruitful. Even worse, because you reactivated this area in the brain, it’s still very easy to be activated again and again. It’s a vicious circle, that can really suck you in and drown you into depression.
The theoretical solution is simple and is based on the alternatives we described above: either change your environment to undo the situation (option 3), or try to connect these bad experiences with non-disturbing thoughts and accept them (option 2), or simply try to avoid any environmental stimuli that will remind you of the issue (option 1). So in theory it’s simple, but in reality the solution is never simple…
On a similar note, this mechanism is of course universal and applicable even for non-big one-off negative experiences, but of smaller and repetitive ones. In other words, even if I don’t experience a big, negative life-altering event, I may have a constant annoyance that disturbs me again and again.
For the same reasons, if my brain is not able to find a solution to it, it gets reactivated again and again, growing bigger and is able to leave a similar mark after a lot of time & repetitions.
The simple advice out of all this is: make sure you solve your issues! Don’t let them dissipate with time, because if the root cause is not dealt with, they will resurface with a spite.
In the end, the brain is like a big minefield. Spread thoughout its expanse of patterns and thoughts are "planted" smaller or bigger bombs, i.e. DPs that were not solved and repressed and will trigger an emotional reaction when stepped upon/activated.
When you talk to people about various topics, you might say specific words that will "awaken" those dormant DPs and then you will see their reaction. You need to traverse this minefield with care, being aware of how it’s built and what its effects are.
People who have experienced many negative experiences (DPs) and did not resolve them properly with have a minefield with many mines. You might say "they have issues, they are damaged". Others might have less. Remember, you always have the opportunity to defuse one mine, when you come across it. Either in yourself, or in the others; whatever the case you will do us all a favor 🙂
In many of my posts, you’ve probably seen me use Noesis terminology to explain stuff, but I admit it’s hard to keep up and sometimes if you don’t have the concept handy in memory, you may get lost or misinterpret the message. For this reason, I’m gonna tell you a fairy-tale; that of the Red Riding Hood sisters (they are many 🙂 and their trip to the Grey forest.
So the Red Riding Hood wants to go to the cabin, to meet her grandmother. But the Grey forest is a actually a maze! There are many paths, all convoluted and you can never be absolutely sure that you’re going in the right direction. On top of it, it’s night, and it’s dark! Little Red Riding Hood is carrying a lantern, but the light it sheds is of course omni-directional, and cannot see very far towards one direction.
So it’s worst case is when the path she’s travelling on ends on crossroads. Her little lantern may not be enough to shed enough light towards the alternative paths, so she’s unsure where to go. Her past experience ("follow the straight path up to where it leads you") is not enough to judge how to continue. Little as she is, her only solution is to start crying (in Noesis terms: a Driving Pocket – DP). The more lost she is, the more loud she will probably cry (how big the DP is).
But fear not, because there is a chopper patrolling the woods (in Noesis terms, this is the Battery), and is actively listening around, eager to help if any of the Hood sisters is at a loss. The chopper has big directional lights, so when it hears the cry for help, it quickly flies on top of the little Red Riding Hood and uses its lights to illuminate the various alternative paths (i.e. we focus our attention and try to identify Action Pockets). With this big help, little Hood can now orient herself. As soon as she has a good enough idea of which is the best path to follow in the crossroad, she starts walking towards it (what we call fuzzy routing).
This way the chopper can be decommissioned and go help another one of her sisters, that may also be crying for a similar reason at another part of the forest! In the end we have one chopper for the whole forest, so it would be unfair for the one sister to monopolize its services. That’s why it’s important to make up her mind quickly and start walking towards a path (i.e. the importance of fuzzy routing to not get the full attention for long). Because in any case, if the little Hood finds out that her hasty decision was the wrong one and she didn’t pick the correct path, all she has to do is start crying again and the chopper will arrive again at her assistance.
Finally, there may be some cases where there are more than one sisters crying together at different parts of the forest. What does the chopper do now? Simple, it will go to the sister that is crying louder! Because it means that she’s in more trouble.
It may be a question so basic, to the point that is sounds stupid. After all, the thinking process is so abundant in humans in everyday life, so it’s considered from granted. We cannot even think of ourselves without the capability of thinking (sic); we wouldn’t exist without it, right? (cogito ergo sum). At the same time, we have to admit that humans, as the cornerstone of evolution has managed to upgrade the thinking process so much that it is now capable of juggling with extremely complex topics, such as the structure of the universe, the meaning of existence, the inner workings of the human mind, etc… This level of complexity can defocus us from the most primal purpose of the thinking process, the one that evolution favored and thus granted us with the ability to think.
In terms of Noesis Theory, I have outlined in a previous post the main mechanism that I think the brain uses, which is to utilize past experience (the past) in order to translate the incoming stimuli (the present) into the most preferable potential outcomes (the future) and try to bring this future into reality.
When you connect the mechanism of thinking with the description above, it’s very easy to link thoughts to "the future". In other words
the mechanism of thinking was given to us in order to be able to predict the future.
The act of thinking is in reality a projection of limited info we have into what could be; into a future.
So when I converse with you and mention the word apple, you will probably bring into your mind the picture of an apple, into your mouth the taste of an apple. Why? Because back the jungle, when you heard the sound of flowing water (thirsty after some hours of scavenging), via your thought process you would be able to predict a candidate future of you finding this spring and drinking its refreshing water. This would be translated as a preferable future, and you would therefore strive to make it a reality.
So we are programmed to experience one thing and immediately think what can come next, and how we can turn this into our benefit. That’s why we "were granted" thinking by… evolution. Our inner vision/smell/taste/hearing, our imagination, it’s there to envision the future.
You might argue that there are all too basic things that I’m describing. That the modern homo sapiens has a much more advanced thinking ability. I can agree with you, but I would also add that this is just (much) better pattern matching, overlaid on top of the very basic evolutionary mechanism that I described. Because the core principle of guessing the future (in order to pick the most favorable one) should be the foundation for thought. In fact, I would even guess that for the same reason all animals with a relatively complex brain have the ability to think. The main difference should be located in their ability to grasp abstract concepts and link distant patterns via the pattern matching capability of their brain. But the core principle (and evolutionary need) of thinking should remain the same across all non-simple living beings.
When we think of machines, we immediately bring determinism to mind. Machines are cruel, they’re full of 1s and 0s. There is nothing in between. No emotion, no variability, no grey areas. They are governed by facts, and they can store a vast array of them; many, many times more expansive than what the human mind can deal with. That is, with existing machines.
The thing is, when we’ll try to transition to true AI, this model will have to change drastically, due to a fundamental paradigm shift: True AI is foremost about true learning (and by this I mean autonomous learning, without cheating by injecting predigested human knowledge). And true learning necessitates forgetfulness! The modus operandi of the human mind, “if you don’t use it you lose it”, is quintessential for advancing our learning and comprehension.
You almost never learn something first time right. You need to experience several similar circumstances and have repeated attempts, at different angles, to build solid foundation of how you can tackle with a situation and all similar to it. That’s why you need to forget in the meantime, every time. Parts of the approach that worked every time will remain in your working knowledge, and you’ll reuse them. Parts that worked once but not many will be forgotten and leave room for other, novel approaches that may prove more successful. In the end, when you’ve build a solid foundation and learned this thing, it will be because you kept the best of everytime and laid the groundwork that can handle more or less successfully every upcoming iteration. You allowed through forgetfulness to “prune” the tree of knowledge, keep only the strong branches, and thus give the opportunity for growth to new branches, which only if they are proven equally strong will be maintained. Forgetfulness is essential thus. Else your learning progress would quickly become deadlocked, because in the first “wrong turn” you would reach a dead-end and would be unable to backtrack and start afresh.
The reason I elaborated so much on this is because when we’ll finally be ready to built true AI, we’ll need to implement the same mechanism of forgetfulness (alas, we know no better) and the result will be… robots… that will be unlike everything we’ve been imagining all the past decades. So far from determinism, but also so familiar, because they will be almost human in some ways. And the question is, are we ready to accept such an invention? Is it possible that humanity will be underwhelmed, because it was expecting something almost superhuman? Will the potential usage scenarios that we’re building in our fantasies & science fiction just collapse and have to be rebuilt from scratch?
Probably not, but it’s an interesting question to ponder.
It seems we got it all wrong in the first place! It’s the reverse. We learn to do such by error & trial, not trial & error! I.e. first and foremost we err; and only then we try to fix this error.
If we use Noesis Theory terms to explain in a bit more detail:
at first, we receive a pattern but have no idea what it means to us (in terms of pleasure/pain). I.e. we’re about to “bang our head into the wall” and don’t know it until we feel it. Once we receive the feelings of pain (or pleasure), the error, and a DP is created, then the incoming stimuli that was experienced just before is linked (feedback) to the DP, i.e. this pattern gets an “emotional coloring” as I like to call it.
Next time we experience this (or a very similar) pattern, the traversal in our brain will be quick enough and will activate (somewhat) the DP before we actually feel the pain. This will be enough to activate our attention and make us try to avoid it (or enhance it if it’s a pleasure).
So in summary, first comes the error, and next time comes the trial to avoid the error. So a child first will feel the pain of the error of stepping on a toy car in his path and falling down, and next time it will make a trial to avoid stepping on it. That’s the way it learns. This means that we got it all wrong in the first place! It’s error & trial, not trial & error! 🙂
Of course I’m writing the above with a playful attitude and I’ve kind of skewed the original target of the “trial & error” motto. If we target it in its original direction of problem solving, of course trial & error still stands. But until we err, we don’t have an incentive to do trials, so I wanted to illustrate in this manner that the precursor of a trial & error session is indeed an “error & trial”, that provides the root cause for starting it.
It’s funny, but if I had to pick a quote that best describes in a succinct manner how the human brain functions, I would pick this phrase, as popularized by Adam Savage:
“I reject your reality and substitute my own“
The reason it’s funny is because this phrase was probably intended as a pun, but the irony is that, in the end, this is the main utility of the brain!
The brain predict what will happen, evaluates whether it will be good or bad (emotional coloring, as I like to call it) and if it believes there is something to be gained (a pleasure to capture or a discomfort to avoid) it chooses a different reality and starts projecting it as the preferred alternative! And the way the brain circuitry works, the more it projects this reality the more likely it is to start happening. Actions happen, thoughts are done and it gets closer and closer to this new, preferred reality.
In other words, it rejected the reality that was presented to it, and attempted to alter the environment to substitute the reality with its own!
I’ve made some good progress with Noesis. I’ll come back and try to explain it even better with the mechanism that this whole thing implements, so that it’s even simpler to understand and follow along.
The question should be stupidly simple to answer, right? After all, as human beings we have all seen the wonders that the brain is able to produce, with the epitome being the human civilization with its many wonders and scientific accomplishments.
But the brain is common for all living beings, not only humans. I.e. yes, for humans it is useful for thinking, for dreaming, for idea generation, for creating… But what about animals? Do all animals produce complex thoughts? Do all animals converse? We need to find a common answer that is simple yet holds true for all living beings of the present, of the past and of the future.
We know from the theory of Evolution that the brain is useful because it helps us survive & reproduce. But this answers the Why and not the How.
We also know from Evolution that since our current brain originated (although in less evolved forms) from more primitive living beings, this “How” should transcend the millennia in order to be common from human to birds, to mice, to dinosaurs, to snails, etc. So it needs to be extremely simple to suit all of those kinds of organisms of varying sophistication.
I will provide my personal answer to this How. In my opinion it is very simple but also very concrete. And it elegantly summarizes in a succinct way many of the key points of Noesis Theory:
The brain for the living beings is a predictor & alterer of the future. It
- uses up sensual stimuli from the present environment,
- capitalizes on past experience to produce expectations for future sensual stimuli (i.e. what will follow what I am experiencing now; what is the future),
- performs an “emotional coloring” of those expectations to decide whether this future is for good or bad
- focuses on the most important (good and bad) of those future outcomes and tries to come up with alternative futures that will maximize the pleasure or minimize/negate the discomfort
- For the most promising of those preferred future outcomes, it starts visualizing them and thus begins to alter the environment (through physical action), in order to make this alternate future the new reality
- Finally, it compares the actual future with the visualized (preferred) future, in order to recognized whether it succeeded in producing this altered, better reality, or it needs to try even harder.
In the above description of simple steps, you can try to picture either a snail doing it, or a human. It should work the same for both…!
To summarize again, in simpler words: I perceive my environment, I decide whether I like what is happening now and what will happen in the future, I try to come up with the best ways that can maximize my pleasure & alleviate my discomfort (current or future), I act upon them and compare the expected results of my actions with the reality, to adjust accordingly.
So there you have it, this is the utility of the brain. It is a tool that came up and evolution favored, because it offers to all living beings a capability of altering the future to their benefit.
I just realized that economics already have a very suitable word for the reduction of interest that gradually happens to us towards an object of potential pleasure (as we get more and more pleasure out of it, the less potential pleasure it promises us the next time).
And the word is “depreciation“. It’s the gradual reduction of our appreciation towards that object. I know that in economics it represents the reduction of its exchange value, but if you think about it, it is actually the same! Because the exchange value is the representation on the market of how much people want to have it. And why do people want to acquire an object? But of course, to get pleasure out of it. So a reduction in price, a depreciation, is actually a reduction in the potential pleasure this object can offer to the potential buyer that is simply translated to a price in economic terms.
I think I’ going to start using this term from now on; it’s very fitting.