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Pleasure Parameters and Behavioral Evolution

February 7th, 2013 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 52 views | Send article | Print this Article |

By Robert DePaolo



This article discusses pleasure as a necessary concomitant of organic behavior and consequently as an impetus in the evolution of increasingly complex behavior patterns. Pleasure is viewed as a function of uncertainty reduction – as per information theory principles, and since uncertainty bears some relationship to systemic complexity the size of bodies and brains is tied to ever-increasing capacity for pleasure, as well as an expanding evolutionary-based behavioral repertoire.

Evolutionary psychology is a relatively new field with intriguing implications. Among the most interesting is the idea that humans share many common behavior patterns with other creatures and that such primal/genetically determined patterns are, while viewed as immoral or antisocial in many instances, ultimately natural to man and more important necessary to our survival. (Miller (2000), (Symms 1979) (Elkadar & Wilson 2008).

Certain aspects of the EP thesis seem paradoxical. For example the supposition that acts of jealousy, sexual opportunism and social deception are necessary to survival (Buss 1992) is hard to reconcile with the fact that such acts often lead to social discord and counteractions that actually entail aggression and jeopardize the survival of members within the group.

Some advocates of EP would logically assert that as Darwin proposed, survival is multifaceted. Individuals do what they must to pass on their own genes, but also act to ensure that the generic family line is continued. Therefore while jealousy and promiscuity might somehow enhance reproduction rates for an individual, altruism might do the same for the group (Trivers1971).

Others have offered similar criticisms of conflict of EP, for example Gannon (2002) and Buller (2005) but in this discussion the author would like to focus on one element of the theory in particular. It has to do with the Raison d’etre of behavioral evolution, which is not survival per se but the pleasure response. No organism, with the possible exception of  homo sapiens, has any sense that its behavior has long term evolutionary consequences. Most creatures do what they do in response to immediate concerns. For instance, low energy states (glucose depletion in particular) lead to hunger which prompts food finding behaviors. Hormonal tensions and signs of estrus lead to mating behaviors and so on. Thus in the truest, existential sense, behavior, and consequently behavioral evolution are driven by the pursuit of pleasure, which is the intermediary, short term, perceptible code by which long-term adaptation is facilitated.

The External Illusion

This is not to exclude the importance of the environment. Quite obviously there must be some functional congruence between how an animal behaves and the pressures and topography of its environment. Primate swinging patterns and visuo-spatial planning skills must coincide with the layout of branches among the trees. The lioness must crunch down lower as she encounters lower blades of grass for pre-attack concealment. However the drive to engage in these behaviors is not registered externally. All the computations are done internally within the brain-body complex so that rather than the animal’s behavior being an accommodation to its environment their behavior is more fundamentally for purposes of stimulating whatever neuro-chemical configurations and pathways are involved in the activation of a pleasure response. It just so happens that the most successful organisms have a beneficial juxtaposition of the pleasure response upon the demands of the environment.

In some sense the preceding statement is trite. Of course what pleases the organism has some correlation with the enactment of behaviors that work within its environment. A larger question has to do with the nature of pleasure, how it correlates with the environment and in the survival process per se.

Information, Hedonics and Evolution

Defining pleasure is a daunting task, especially because what we refer to as pleasure can take on so many forms and degrees of satisfaction. Since we humans have a penchant for over-labeling certain experiences as pleasurable will be put that aside for the moment. More important for purposes of this discussion are primal-appetitive or primal-social/informational drives such as sex, appetite, perceptual closure, approach-avoidance behavioral outcomes and social affiliation. While there are vast differences even among those, they do share a common factor in that they all pivot around deviation from and return to a “steady state.” Appetite satiation and information/affiliation resolutions return the organism to a steady state, which can take the form of a baseline arousal level, perceptual closure or cognitive resolution (Berridge 2004).

This is not the same as tension reduction. The normal, steady state could be low,  heightened or somewhere in between. Its value is not as important as its homeostatic regularity. As Berlyne has suggested (1960) restoration of the steady state can be equated broadly, and across all appetites with the perception of pleasure.

In concrete terms this model could be depicted in the following sequence:

Stimulus – Internal Deviation from Stasis – Dis-equilibrium – State of Displeasure – Action – Restoration of Normal State Parameters – Pleasure Response.

This model would encompass the positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and drive induction paradigms. For example in one instance an organism’s escape or avoidance behaviors would reduce a discomforting increase in the arousal levels of pain receptors. In another, a period of low stimulation would lead to behavior that enhanced arousal levels back to a steady, alert, moderately aroused, preparatory state.

In fact, however, the situation is a bit more complicated. The notion of stability – or homeostasis is not a fixed value but rather a range of values that are within the realm of normalcy. That is not surprising.  The biological domain comprises a system and there are ongoing fluctuations in any system. The body has slight deviations in temperature but as long as it remains within a certain range things will be okay.

This can be seen in non-biotic systems as well. For example quantum particles undergo constant fluctuations but since this occurs at such a microscopic level the net stability of the natural world is not affected. The same occurs with regard to pleasure states. That has various implications, one of which is best discussed in terms of Information Theory.

Nature and the Info-Paradox

Information Theory is rather complex, and can be applied to a variety of phenomena, including brain function (Pfaff, 2006) technological communications systems, (Yeung 2008) genetics, (Milenkovic 2005) cosmology (Catania 1987) and even the efficacy of instruction conveyed from teacher to student in a kindergarten classroom. While there are several key elements this writer would like to focus on one in particular, which forms the core of the theory. It is the relationship between information and uncertainty.

First some discussion of information. While the word usually pertains to communications of some sort, i.e one thing (organic or otherwise) interacting with something else to effect a response or transition, it can also pertain to the emergence of a distinctive substance, i.e. a property or entity that emerges out of a hyper-complex void or a mishmash of noisy-nothingness. As a concrete example, a storm is a mishmash of various forces, whereas the snowflakes or raindrops that emerge from the storm, are recognized or in some way via influence on another entity (the human brain, or perhaps a leaf on which it it lands) comprises information.

Yet information can be relative. For instance if one is looking for a needle and finds it within a haystack the needle comprises information. However if one is looking for a haystack in a large barn replete with sundry debris then the haystack becomes information because it emerged from a larger, noisy entity and had an effect on another entity, i.e. the searcher’s eyes and brain via a recognition response.

The state from which the information (bit) emerges has little or no distinctive qualities or  interactive influential effect. Consequently it is referred to as a state of uncertainty.

The key to understanding this theory lies in the relationship of information to uncertainty. Uncertainty is not a bad or superfluous thing and information is not really a singular entity. Since information is dependent on a prior state of uncertainty the two are really two sides of the same coin. Distinctive, influential codes cannot emerge unless something prior to that existed. By the same token a state of uncertainty can never be manifest as “something” unless it has the potential for emitting new codes, entities or influential forces that “break from the pack.” In that sense the world, which depends on a chicken-egg, oscillating uncertainty-information pattern is less a function of material things, as a physicist might surmise, than of an abstract and mathematical functional duality.

That model depicts the universe as a kind of net zero mechanism that must revert back and forth between something and nothing to continue to exist. Information cannot stand alone, nor can it last or exhibit any sort of perpetuity lest it revert back to a state of uncertainty via the process of entropy.

Such a yin and yang cycle is responsible for the life and death process, for the encoding of the universe from the (uncertain) cosmic egg into encoded/informed galaxies, stars and planets. It is responsible things as disparate as climatic shifts and for human visual perception (which requires periodic eye-blinks to renew the functions of the occipital lobe). Thus in a very real sense nothing is the flip side of something and vice versa.  We live neither in a material world nor an intangible world but rather in a dichotomous world.

While that might seem somewhat abstract, or at least certainly not material, it is a dynamic that might help explain what physicists refer to as “quantum weirdness.” For instance without fluctuations in the quantum domain world there could be no emerging stability in the classical world, at which point the universe could not exist other than in a plasmic, non interactive state).

However the point here is to discuss information in terms of organic evolution and more specifically the main driver of evolutionary behavior, the pleasure response.

Pleasure adheres to information dynamics. Various studies have shown that at both the experiential and neural levels it cannot register without first being turned off. It is like everything else, oscillatory in nature. Any attempt to maintain an ongoing sense of pleasure (for example by chronic use of cocaine as discussed in a 2011 NIH article on substance abuse) will result in displacement of the pleasure response. Thus satisfaction cannot be perpetuated. It can only be renewed – so much for the Utopian vision.

The way in which stable states effect behavioral evolution is complex but can be conceptualized.  All organisms seek to maintain and /or restore stability. (Ashby 1940). The moment they become structurally closed off from the outside world – as they do via membrane formation, they become intra-systemic mechanisms. All the variables for behavioral evolution are contained within the membrane. How then does behavior evolve? As the cell structure becomes more complex and multi-factorial, the nature of the stable state expands. More cells lead to more interactive/influential permutations.

That creates certain trends. First due to increased cellular complexity stability is easier to maintain (Ashby 1947) (Ashby 1958).i.e. celllular complexity serves as a buffer against  outside stimulus influence. In other words cellular complexity provides an anchoring effect. As complexity increases, organisms become more intra-stable, which means that while incoming stimuli are registered in sensory systems those stimuli can to an extent be held at bay, perhaps even contemplated as organisms become more complex. Thus more complexity sets the stage for cognitive mechanisms such as thought, emotion, cognition and decision-making.

Another byproduct is that due to increased cellular complexity a greater scope of communicative influence and range of behaviors are both possible and necessary to restore stasis. Whereas in a simple system, a single avoidance response might restore stability a complex system would require more intricate adaptive reactions to realign internal, physiological variables. Only after running the gamut of complexity can stasis be registered in a pleasure response.

By the same token more behaviors become possible due to increased cellular complexity such that the organism might evolve several response systems by which to ameliorate uncertainty, and induce the pleasure response.

Eventually the increase in cells can reach a self-regulatory threshold, enabling the organism to have both an external and internal orientation. At this point life can be described as being poly-stable and multi-systemic (Ashby 1960). New cells do not have to start off as brain cells. They merely have to be separate enough from inputs to enact the kind of deliberation and registration of inputs without having to react to them immediately. Thus brains exemplify the ultimate anatomical organic anchor point.  Being relatively isolated from external influence they can compute visual signals without seeing, interpret sounds without hearing, even interpret pain without actually feeling it.  Certainly sense organs do that – but not the brain itself.

Viewed in this way, one could say that organic evolution unfolds in the same way as cosmic evolution, i.e. through an uncertainty-to-information sequence. Cells are formed by membrane separation from the outside world, at which point they become “informed.” As more cells are added on, cellular structures begin to vary in type as well as number. The organic system becomes more complex, leading to greater internal stability and a shift from external to greater internal influence. The environment must pass through an increasingly complex internal filter before exerting its influence. The organism becomes more anchored, has to process its own reactions and internal permutations as well as outside signals to restore stability. Pleasure then becomes a means of driving and registering the process of working through internal complexity as well as external signals.

As a function of this dynamic a semblance of the self evolves. The organism can see itself in the context of its environment and vice versa. That gives rise to faculties such as memory, motivation, emotion as well as to an internal/emotional representation/interpretation of stasis, which we call the survival instinct. So whereas simple organisms tended toward states of stability the internal shift arising from cellular, systemic complex organisms harbor an aversion to death and a lust for life.

The logical endpoint of such a process was to create more complex emotions, pleasure inducing (information attaining) behaviors and cognitive skills.  Once that transformation occurred stasis could be restored through perception – art was the result. It could be restored through the closure of social equanimity – thus fomenting the achievement drive, love, and altruism. It could be manifest in the closure arising from spatial and diagrammatic states of uncertainty – leading to the invention of mathematics and architecture. And whereas simpler organisms (while tending toward stable states) don’t really fear death, humans fear it greatly and carry out a wide variety of acts, preventative, defensive, cultural, personal to ensure that life goes on.

If valid, this model would imply that evolution occurs on two levels. One pertains to happenstance mutations in anatomy, such as the color of an animal’s fur or the size of its teeth. The other is internal and pertains to the organism’s drive to maintain internal stasis and through increasing cellular complexity – both in the types and number of cells, toward greater range in pleasure parameters. Over time that has lead to behavioral expansion and a greater separation between internal faculties and outside influence, thus the capacity for enhanced emotion, memory and cognitive functions. Of the two, the information-driven component of evolution might be more influential, particularly in terms of human evolution.

This if of course conjectural, and some will argue that the Darwinian model (itself complex despite the oversimplified phrase “survival of the fittest”) provides a better account of how organisms evolve. While the theory of natural selection is logical and appears to be supported by genetic mutation patterns it is less impressive with regard to the role of brain and behavior in evolution. As soon as brains evolved, a whole internal world opened up, with its own parameters, its own sense of stability, its own penchant for re-interpreting, rather than merely sensing the events of the outside world. In this opinion any theory of evolution must account for that, particularly in terms of the behavioral domain.



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