Consciousness streamlines decision-making

Decisions_decisionsAccording to Darwinian theory, the point of life is simple: produce more life. But this vast agenda doesn’t always seem to motivate our countless humdrum, daily decisions. Instead, James A. Morris (Royal Lancaster Infirmary, UK) argues that we’re motivated by a single, simple choice in all our decisions: pleasure and pain. Importantly, consciousness is vital for this mechanism to work, since only conscious beings can actually experience good or unpleasant feelings. And religion may be one of the tools our societies use to tell us what to feel good, or bad, about.

The existence of consciousness is a mystery. Biologists and neuroscientists haven’t yet been able to fully describe how consciousness works or even how the processes of the brain could give rise to subjective experience. But many researchers agree one one thing: consciousness is probably adaptive. That is, evolution has given rise to conscious experience because animals that have such experiences are better-equipped to survive on Earth than those that don’t. Morris, writing earlier this year in the journal Medical Hypotheses, argues that guessing why is easy: we need consciousness in order to make high-order decisions, or decisions that require pleasure, pain, or both.

An example: let’s say that a representative of a charity shows up at your door one evening, right as your family is sitting down to dinner. The representative is very articulate and convincing, and  it turns out that the cause – helping starving families in East Africa, say – is a good one. In order to make a decision about whether or not to delay dinner so you can run upstairs for your checkbook, you need more information than a simple, mindless machine could produce, regardless of how complex and sophisticated that machine might be. In other words, you need emotional information. Dinnertime with your family is important to you, and so delaying sitting down with them will make you feel emotional pain. On the other hand, knowing that you could help other families far away would make you feel good. The ultimate decision is a balance between the various possibilities for pain or pleasure.

Of course, you could plug the same data into a computer, and the algorithm would produce one decision or another. But Morris argues that these decisions wouldn’t be as reliable or as useful, because pleasure or pain are the simplest, most powerful mechanisms for providing input about many complex decisions. And in order for pleasure or pain to be effective, there has to be a conscious awareness to actually experience them.

This same model also holds true for physical and other kinds of pain and pleasure. For example, stubbing your toe when you walk into a room with a raised threshold causes real, physical pain, which (hopefully) will inspire you to be more careful in the future. But how could pain possibly be effective as a motivator without consciousness to experience it?
Morris claims that this model explains why pleasure and pain can be so easily described as an either/or dichotomy across different cultures. That is to say, there may be different kinds or flavors of pleasure or pain, but ultimately researchers have found that all experiences can be placed on a simple linear graph: experiences are either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. There are no other options, no second or third dimensions to the scale. Different people, then, will often rate various experiences (such as going to the dentist, laughing, or having dinner with friends) similarly, suggesting that the subjective experience of pleasant or unpleasant activities actually provides fairly objective data about how rewarding those activities are for the psyche. This simplicity makes it possible to present concrete, useful data to the conscious mind: once an experience is registered as either pleasant or unpleasant, immediately the mind knows what to do with it.

Contrasting these conscious, higher-order processes with unconscious decision-making, Morris points out that emotional content is only needed for decisions that require lots of flexibility and creativity. This means that the vast majority of our decisions are made without any conscious input, and thus don't need to flip the pleasure-pain switch in one direction or the other. The main evolutionary benefit of consciousness, then, may have been to increase the flexibility, and the responsiveness, of decision-making in situations where surroundings could change quickly – where automatic processes wouldn't be fast or sophisticated enough to be effective.

Religion, according to Morris, is one of the systems that cultures use to either positively or negatively weight different experiences. Religious practices themselves are often weighted positively by the psyche, and religious systems help condition people to experience different situations as either pleasant or unpleasant. For example, your religious tradition may lead you to feel guilty when you eat meat on a Friday; this negatively valenced experience will probably affect your menu decisions. Thus, religion utilizes the pleasure-pain switch in the brain to influence behavior, while itself also being a direct trigger of pleasurable (and, presumably, also painful) experiences.

Morris’s vision is an intriguing one, but it’s also not particularly fleshed out. The connection between religion and the pleasure-pain circuit, in particular, would be fascinating to see explored in more detail. And there’s some reason to be cautious of Morris’s somewhat rash claim that all religions will eventually meld into one global faith, allowing values about good and bad to be universalized across cultures. If he really thinks that all the world’s faiths will start to see eye-to-eye anytime soon, perhaps he needs some remedial religious education – or else he knows something the rest of us don’t. But the idea that conscious experience is necessary for optimal high-order decisions is an intriguing one, and a useful lens through which to interpret a variety of human phenomena, from depression and sadness to religious experience. Emotions and subjective experiences aren’t just mechanical flashes in the electric circuitry of the brain. They’re vital messages, telling us what we need to know about the world outside.