Where next?

Our brain is constantly trying to determine our next step on the (actual or metaphorical) route that will lead us to the high peaks of pleasure, and away from the deep valleys of pain.

It does this by, in effect, calculating something I call valence, which is a number that is positive for pleasure and negative for pain. You can think of the current valence as like the height where we are currently standing in a mountainous landscape.

On every cognitive cycle, of a few tenths of a second, the brain tries a few options for what to do next and picks the best.

It picks the best by calculating what change in valence (improvement in our situation, or elevation, in the metaphor of a walk up a mountain) will result, and picking the best.

It chooses to pay attention to the sensory data that will best inform the action we will take. This is the salient data that will lead to extremes of positive or negative valence, as we must both seek good things (head up the mountain, stay on the path) and avoid bad stuff (not fall off the edge).

Along the way we may have to put up with some discomfort to reach the ultimate goal, so the calculation may need to take into account long term versus short term predicted valence.

It is also discounted for probability of outcome (we prefer an outcome we are confident in), delay to outcome (we prefer instant gratification to 'jam tomorrow') and the cost incurred along the way (like sore legs on a long climb).

I believe the basic decision making process to be automatic, subconscious and not under our direct control. Strangely enough, this is why it feels subjectively that we have free will - because our brain does the calculation without letting us be conscious of how it is doing it. Intuitively it feels like a force of will.

We can of course influence the decision making processing by consciously bringing to mind objectives, goals and ultimate rewards (for example that we will enjoy the view from the top), and paying attention to them, so that they influence the prediction of future valence and therefore what we do next.

The way that valence is calculated defines what pleasure and pain are for us. It therefore determines what we pay attention to, what we do, what we learn and therefore ultimately what we become.

Peter Martin

What are your thoughts?


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