© Charles Chandler
The previous section established how actions that led directly to stimulus reduction can get preserved in long-term memory, in lieu of actions that led immediately to biologic insult. Most animals are capable of such learning. But the brand of intelligence that interests us the most is far more sophisticated, and it's hard to imagine how humans developed advanced reasoning simply on the basis of trial and error. There is a lot to be said for induction in a noisy neural net, which then constantly generalizes and variegates (sometimes to a fault), giving it the ability to transfer knowledge across trial domains, with performance that degrades gracefully with the degree of novelty. And humans certainly have cerebral cortexes with a lot more surface area, so we can do a lot more induction. Still, we have a capacity for understanding complex cause and effect relationships that sets us apart, and cannot be attributed simply to more of the same capability that other primates have.
This section explores the possibility that our uniquely human ability to focus our attention introspectively is what sets us apart. In other words, it seems that all animals (to scalable extents) are capable of induction, but only humans can activate feedback patterns that recall memories from associative or even secondary sensory areas. This gives us the power of imagination that seems to be uniquely human. And such re-entrant activity patterns are real enough to the rest of the brain that they can evoke emotions, triggering the endocrine system. Thus we can imagine frightening situations, triggering the release of adrenalin, and comforting situations, triggering the release of serotonin. This is significant in that an internally generated activity pattern can be comforting, wherein painful stimuli are suppressed, and thus the pattern can persist, long enough to transition to long-term memory. So in the previous section, we saw that satisfying the physical requirements led to stimulus reduction, enabling the transition of the mental activity pattern to long-term memory. Now we see that such a transition can occur even if the physical requirements are not met.
Ordinarily, this kind of self-satisfaction is considered to be a disconnect from reality, wherein the present problem is artificially suppressed, even if the material issue persists. But there might be an important utility to it. For example, if we are cold, we can blot out the unpleasant sensation by imagining that we are warm. To make the blotting more robust, we might recall memories of causal patterns in which the result was that we got warm. So we are cold, and we imagine that we are warm. To enhance this, we imagine that we are doing something to get warm. To enhance that, we might imagine that we had just split some wood and made a fire. And the more robust these associations, and the more directly they lead to the imagination that the problem has been solved, the more complete the blotting. Thus real life experiences related to the problem and its solution are more useful, since they are more robust.
Once a causal chain has been established, starting from the imagination that the problem has been solved, and working backward all of the way to actions that can be taken in the present to solve the problem, all of the present stimuli then contribute to this activity pattern, which now resonates at full strength. At this point, the internal activity pattern comes to dictate the behavior of the person. So a desire gives rise to imaginings of satisfaction, which invite memories associated with satisfaction to contribute to the robustness of the imagining, until thoughts of taking the associated actions come to dominate the person's internal state, at which time the actions become inevitable. Now we get up from the couch and go split some wood to make a fire. Ironically, when the person finally solves the problem, it's anticlimactic, since internally, the problem had already been "solved" by the imagination, at least to the satisfaction of the endocrine system, which certified that the problem had been solved by releasing endorphins, granted a feeling of well being, and enabling the storage of the activity pattern in long-term memory.
In other words, to deny that we have a problem, we activate memories of circumstances in which we didn't have that problem. Then we are more likely to engage in the associated physical activities. Do we know that we are solving a problem? It would be just as accurate to say that taking actions that lead to satiation, to us at the time, is just living out a fantasy that the problem has already been solved, but to maintain the fantasy, we engage in the associated actions.
In this context, many aspects of human nature are easier to understand. For example, people who excel at creative problem solving are often dreamers, who might have a reputation for having only one foot in the real world. They refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of their problems, and persist in the delusion that they are living in a world that doesn't confront them with such unpleasantries. And eventually, they stumble upon a way of maintaining the "delusion" that actually solves the problem.
We can also understand why denial is so ubiquitous. We ordinarily think that denial disables the problem solving process — instead of solving the problem, we refuse to acknowledge it, and continue on in our make-believe worlds. Only when we get a grip on the true nature of our present circumstances can effective problem solving begin. There is truth to that, but it might not represent such a difference in kind. Denying that there is a problem might simply be the first step in any problem solving process. The difference between someone who is "in denial" and somebody who is actively pursuing a realistic solution might simply be the difference between early and late stage problem solving. This suggests that the way to help someone who cannot find a solution is not to insist on the abandonment of the dream, but rather, to accept that the dream is an indispensable part of the process, and that the missing piece is the actions that will bring the world around to match the dream. Sometimes the person simply doesn't have the real-world experiences to see how a dream can become a reality. (Of course, there are times when toiling to satisfy a desire would cause more sorrow than the problem itself. These are problems that are better solved with fantasies never to be confused with realities. The more serious and immediate problems, that can be solved, are those which can economically transition from fantasy to reality.)
This means that the most natural approach to problem solving includes the following steps.
- Clearly identify the true nature of the problem.
- Imagine a scenario in which that problem does not exist.
- Imagine the things that had to happen to instantiate that scenario.
- Keep imagining, until a complete causal chain has been identified, ending with the solution, and beginning in the present.
- Follow that chain to fulfillment.
This, of course, is a well known process, and the significance here is not that a new problem solving method has been discovered. Rather, viewing this process through neurobiological eyes might give us a way of understanding how it works, and why, and how we can work with it, moving it out of the domain of pure trial and error, and into the domain of measurable methodology.