p2.jpg

The Guess Worker

Interest

Overview:

  •  We experience interest when we are simply aware without noticeable feelings
  • This interest is weakly pleasurable
  • The pleasure of interest helps us form concepts
  • The quality and intensity of interest depends on linkages between groups of neurons

Your life is more interesting than you realise. How come? Because much of the time you are interested you don't know it. Interest is what you experience when you notice the things around you. It is awareness without emotions. It is what you feel when you don't think you are feeling anything at all.

A faint interest

Interest is a pleasurable feeling. We experience its pleasure when we are fascinated. So isn't it nonsense to suggest that we feel interest when we are simply aware? Why don't we feel the pleasure? How could we feel something and at the same time fail to appreciate that we feel it?

Fascination is a fairly intense feeling but of course not everything makes us fascinated. Sometimes we are only slightly interested in things. On these occasions the pleasure we feel is less intense. Imagine then what it feels like to be even less than slightly interested. The pleasure from such an event would be very weak and transient.

Now let's suppose that whenever you are conscious you always feel some pain or pleasure and that the pleasure felt from many of the stimuli you come across is the weakest kind of pleasure there can be. Amongst all the other, much stronger, pains and pleasures it's hardly surprising that these weak pleasures get overlooked.

Persuasive pointers

So at all times we are conscious – even when we are simply aware – we feel at least some pleasure or pain. This is an idea which makes sense if you believe, as I do, that consciousness exists to motivate us. But are there any grounds for believing it? As usual with consciousness, there isn't any proof. The pointers are, however, persuasive.

New objects and unfamiliar events give us pleasure. That's why we like buying new things and why we enjoy travelling to exotic countries. Of course this interest always wears off in time. What the interest doesn't do is disappear with a click of the fingers: it tapers away gradually. The pleasure we get from novelty decreases slowly over time. So if an ultra-new experience gives us a lot of pleasure, couldn't it be that a frequently revisited experience still gives us a slight amount of pleasure? Perhaps the pleasure never disappears to nothing: even when we're very used to something, a tiny spark remains.

This argument would be more convincing if even old objects and familiar events gave pleasure. Of course this does happen too. Pleasure is often what we feel when we come home after being abroad for a long time. The feeling would be more intense had we been in prison – and even stronger than that had we been kept blindfolded and handcuffed for many years.*1 After deprivation, regaining the things we are used to can be very pleasurable indeed. Later, once our lives get back to a routine, the buzz does fade – but probably a low hum of pleasure always stays with us.

An ordinary day

Everything in nature has a reason and if simple awareness is weakly pleasurable, it has to be pleasurable for a reason. What could that reason be? The answer has to do with salience.*2 Stimuli which are pleasurable are salient and that promotes the formation of synapses in the brain. To put this another way: pleasure helps to make connections. It seems the brain makes the world interesting so that we can form concepts.

Let's look at an example to see how this works in practice. Suppose when you get up in the morning you see it's cloudy outside. In the kitchen you notice the cat needs to be fed and in the bathroom, as you are cleaning your teeth, you make a mental note that the toothpaste is running out. On the way to work you can make out from a distance that many people are waiting at the bus stop for the bus you want to catch.

None of what happens to you on this particular morning is very interesting. But what does happen is at least interesting enough for a moment's thought. What exactly do you think about in such moments? You think about whether something needs to be done and, if it does, what needs to be done. The weather outside might help you decide what to wear; the cat's empty bowl will prompt you to fill it up; the almost empty toothpaste tube tells you that today you must buy another one and the people at the stop might make you speed up to avoid missing the bus. What you are doing in all these instances is making concepts – concepts which will guide your actions through the day. And it is your weak interest in the situations around you which help you to make these concepts.*3

What makes the difference?

Even the events of an unremarkable day are not all equally interesting. Not least because you didn't have breakfast when you left the house, the aroma from the bakery when you get off the bus attracts your attention more than the fragrance of the flowers from the nearby florist. There is, of course, a reason for the difference in the pleasure given by the two stimuli: the aroma from the bakery is more likely to lead to your satisfying a want. The aroma is a more pleasurable clue because it is a better clue.*4

What, though, on a physiological level, makes some stimuli more interesting than others? Most fundamentally it's down to the strength of connections between neurons. The neurons which are activated by more pleasurable stimuli have stronger linkages to dopaminergic neurons than do less pleasurable ones. Stronger linkages mean that more impulses reach the dopaminergic neurons, and that in turn means sharper rises in dopamine. Consciousness interprets sharper rises as being more pleasurable.

I can think of three factors which affect how strong this linkage will be:

  1. Hard wiring. At birth some clusters of neurons already have stronger linkages to dopaminergic neurons. Those stimuli which activate these neurons will be more pleasurable than stimuli which activate more weakly linked neurons. An example of this is a sweet taste which apparently even very young babies find pleasurable.*5

  2. Hormones. These chemical messengers probably strengthen the linkages between certain groups of neurons and dopaminergic neurons. That would explain why sexual stimuli become more interesting and more pleasurable as puberty begins.

  3. Associations. Linkages between groups of neurons are strengthened through learning. Usually the strengthening is indirect: one group of neurons connects to another group which is already strongly linked to dopaminergic neurons.*6 An example of this is the sound of the bell becoming associated with food in Pavlov's dogs.

These factors – and combinations of them – is probably what changes weak interest into stronger and more varied feelings. We use the word interest to describe a spectrum of feelings with different qualities and intensities. Our interest in sex doesn't feel the same as our interest politics. Some kinds of interest might be mixed with horror, disgust or amazement. The quality of any kind of interest depends on the linkages the neurons of a stimulus have with other groups of neurons. If it were possible to disconnect these linkages, the interest we feel would be the minimal pleasure we experience when we are simply aware.

A curious fragrance

Strong linkages explain why the aroma from the bakery is much more pleasurable than, let's say, noticing the toothpaste is running out. However, as you get out of the bus, there is something curious about the fragrance of the flowers from the florists. Even though the smell is not as good as that from the bakery, it's still much more pleasurable than it needs to be. Flowers aren't important to us: their fragrance should be only minimally interesting so that we can make a few basic concepts. But the fragrance of flowers can be very pleasurable. Why? We could ask a similar question about many stimuli which seem to give us much more pleasure than necessary. Why do we find dramatic mountain views beautiful? Why do we love music? Why do we enjoy painting pictures? None of these experiences are useful and yet can be intensely pleasurable. What's going on?

The misty mountain tops

At root the answer must be that all these stimuli activate neurons which have strong linkages to dopaminergic neurons. The reasons why we have these particular strong linkages, though, are often obscured in the mists of our evolutionary history. It may not be that we evolved to appreciate music or to enjoy painting pictures as such; instead something about these stimuli was important to us at some stage in our past and that is why we now find them pleasurable. I hope to explore the answers to these puzzles in greater depth in later posts. Anyway - for the sake of completeness - let's look briefly at mountain views.

Mountains activate a number of concepts in our brains. "Nature" could be one of these and "freedom from worries" might be another. These are pleasurable concepts but other stimuli (such as flowering meadows) can also activate them. What makes mountains different is that they are impressive. Impressiveness probably conjures up in us a sense of danger. Even though we know mountains are dangerous, when we look them we also know that from our vantage point we are safe. That makes us feel a momentary pain (from the sense of danger) which almost immediately changes to the pleasure of relief (once we realise we are safe). It's probably this quick switch from pain to pleasure which makes mountains impressive.

A question for next time

Mountains are interesting in their own special way because of complex connections in our brains. Pare away these connections and our reaction to mountains might be much the same as mine was when I was a child. ("It's a mountain. What the big deal?") It was the basic unit of interest, an iota of pleasure which wasn't able to sustain my attention for more than a passing glance. In the years since, my brain has developed a mass of linkages which have radically intensified my feelings towards mountains, as well as towards many other things. How, though, do linkages intensify feelings? This is the question which I will be tackling in the next post.

 

 

*1. See The dynamics of pain for Brian Keenan´s description of his joy on being released from four years of captivity.

*2. See Learning for an explanation of salience.

*3. How pleasure helps to form concepts is outlined in Learning.

*4. See Pleasurable clues.

*5. See Pleasures of the brain by Kent C. Berridge

*6. See Learning

Comments powered by CComment

Content