Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Are ideas like food and sex?

"Does human creativity stem from a process that turns arbitrary ideas into goals like food and sex?"

..asks Andy Clark, in his review (Nature 445, 711-712, 15 February 2007) of "Why Choose This Book? How We Make Decisions," by Read Montague (Dutton: 2006):

"The most obvious rewards are the basic biological achievements of life maintenance (such as the ingestion of a tasty and nourishing morsel) and reproduction (or rather its precursor, sexual intercourse). Montague is motivated, however, by a strong desire to unravel the mechanistic underpinnings of what he describes as a uniquely human 'superpower': the capacity to make choices that seem to value biologically arbitrary objects, achievements and actions. Examples of such biologically arbitrary goal states mentioned in the text include solving Fermat's last theorem and committing group suicide in the belief that a spaceship hidden in a comet's tail will then take you to 'the next level'. What makes all this possible, in Montague's model, is the capacity of ideas themselves to act as reward signals, hijacking the prediction-error systems implemented by dopamine neurons in the brain. When this happens, the dopamine outputs start to act as error signals that encourage the rest of the brain to learn and to make decisions in ways that increase the chances of acquiring some biologically arbitrary reward."

"Given the potentially biologically catastrophic consequences of such re-tooling of mere thoughts as rewards, Montague suggests that powerful filtering processes control what gets into the reward slot. But such processes can be fooled — in ways that the book describes in compelling and often sinister detail — by damage, by drug abuse, and perhaps even by some forms of advertising and branding (brands are just cues that predict rewards). Montague's proposal is that biologically arbitrary goals can somehow plug into a kind of 'special status reward socket', and thus become a basic, primary reward, like food or sex. He does not claim that these ideas become associated, either directly or indirectly, with food or sex; rather, they plug directly into the 'socket' normally occupied only by the most basic high-status rewards. If we humans have indeed learnt such a powerful trick, it is no surprise that it fuels so much that is both good (creative and expansive) and ill (pathological and restrictive) in our species. Montague begins by laying out this possibility, then follows it deep into the fascinating territories of creative thought, addiction, obsessive–compulsive disorder, Parkinson's disease, and then on to the psychosocial realms of trust and regret."

"The book spans several seldom-bridged worlds, from neuroscience to psychiatry, economics and social psychology, and does so with wit, precision and elegance. It succeeds in many of its goals. Above all, it left me feeling I had actually learnt something about myself: a thinking, feeling, choosing, yet painfully vulnerable chemically modulated learning machine."

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