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« A Conscious Machine? | Main | Remember Hiroshima »

July 31, 2014


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Don Stewart

Dear George
I would like to suggest one complication to your diagrams. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford, wrote The Willpower Instinct. In chapter 5 she describes 'The Brain's Big Lie: Why We Mistake Wanting for Happiness'.

Thus, rats who receive electrical shocks that release dopamine will repeat the actions until they are too physically damaged to continue. But they do not feel good. Humans who are subjected to similar experiments describe the experience as 'intensely frustrating'. The dopamine promises pleasure which never arrives. Marketers now understand the science well enough to peddle all kinds of things which promise, but don't deliver, pleasure.

In addition, there is the issue of pleasure delivered today which generates bad effects tomorrow....such as junk foods high in salt, sugar, and fat.

The transformations enabled by energy fall into at least five categories:
False promises
True promises which boomerang
True promises which are life affirming
Intermediate products which permit more energy to be produced

If this framework is even roughly correct, it implies some things about governance.

I am afraid that, if we look at these categories, we come back to the need for sapience...which is in short supply.

Don Stewart

Don Stewart

Dear George
One follow up thought. Again from McGonigal's book, chapter 5.

Two scientists inadvertently discovered the dopamine response in 1953, when they clumsily inserted a probe into the wrong place in a rat's brain. They thought the rat would flee the shocks. But they found that rats sought out the shocks. They and others were able to demonstrate compulsive shock seeking behavior. Because Skinner ruled psychological theory at the time, it never occurred to them that perhaps the rats weren't really having fun, and people began to call it 'stimulating the pleasure center'. It wasn't until 2001 that a Stanford scientist published the definitive experiments which proved that dopamine stimulates rats and humans, but does not generate pleasure. If you question humans who have been given dopamine stimulation with no actual pleasure, they express discomfort, but keep pushing the dopamine levers.

But it is true that both dopamine and pleasure are part of Nature's design. Rats whose dopamine has been disabled 'still get a goofy expression' when given sugar, but they won't put out any work to get the sugar. Neuromarketing is the science of stimulating the dopamine response, without necessarily offering much of anything in terms of pleasure.

GDP is, I think, a measure of what humans do in an economy when stimulated by dopamine. Happiness is produced by a subset of all that effort. Anecdotally, many of us would agree that much of the dopamine generated GDP in the modern world never makes it through to generating happiness or pleasure.

I would speculate that, as energy becomes scarcer, we will be forced to evolve toward more efficient production of happiness or pleasure in response to the dopamine stimulation.

I would speculate that Economics will be forced to confront the fact that, just as the psychologists had to learn that dopamine did not generate pleasure, dopamine generated GDP is not the real goal of anything.

Don Stewart


Wonderful post. I wonder how one parses humans that are strategic thinkers from survivor bias, which is that looking back at history it appears that the survivors are strategic thinkers? Is there a way to test for true strategic thinkers ahead of time? Also I hope you can somehow incorporate the costs of strategic thinking. I have seen a lot of places where people forget to include the costs associated with creating the models necessary for strategic thinking and then implementing the infrastructure. Most previous evolutionary biology ex humans, the cost of failure is the cost of living structures minus a cost for super accurate error correction, while failure of strategic thinking is cost of capital structures plus costs associated with modeling and implimenting infrastructure. Does this mean strategic thinking is more high risk than non strategic biological evolution? How much better does strategic thinking have to be to out perform evolutions previous massively parallel experiment?

Aboc Zed

Excellent post. Looking forward to the second installment. One thing Wealth of Nations = Adam Smith.

George Mobus

@Don S.,

Thanks for the reference. Nate Hagens, of the former Oil Drum site, used to write a good deal about dopamine, etc. He is writing at "The Monkey Trap" and I believe you can still find his writings archived at the Oil Drum site.

As for the need for sapience - spoiler alert - I will be writing about how the only way a well functioning hierarchical cybernetic can work is if the decision agents are sapient enough. The good news is that the evolutionary evidence points to pre-agricultural humans were on the path in that direction. The bad news is it has been strongly selected against since agriculture and technology.


Good questions all. As for costs, you are right that strategic thinking is very costly. The prefrontal cortex expanded greatly over the last 2 million years and Brodmann area 10 doubled in size over the last 200k years. The brain is already the most expensive tissue in the body, energy-wise. So my guess is that the further increases in brain tissues supporting expanded tactical and strategic thinking must have been a selective advantage. One possible theory is that strategic thinking is more important in more complex and highly variable environments. The African continent went through some pretty wide ranging climate shifts that were thought to have a major impact on human evolution. The expansion of the brain size and especially of the PFC may have shifted the job of forming strategies from evolutionary selection of massively copied substrate to the capabilities of individuals to formulate long-term strategies in their memory systems.

That would be my guess anyway!


Thanks for the alert. Must have been thinking of Thanksgiving or something when I wrote that. Fixed now!


Don Stewart

Here is a comment I posted over at Gail Tverberg's site.

If we think that the next 50 years will see considerably more selection pressure than the last 50, then the ability to accurately predict which activities will actually generate something productive, and the ability to work together creatively, may both be strongly selected for. Which is not to deny that the Genghis Khan strategy may also work. Don Stewart
If we are thinking about surviving a collapse, or rebuilding after a collapse, or just thriving in the world of Business as Usual, then cooperation with other humans and dogs becomes very important. It is also important to understand when our tendency to cooperate may get us in trouble.

I recommend two things to listen to and think about. The first is the TED talk on how cooked food permits humans to develop very much larger pre-frontal cortexes than our primate cousins. The very large number of additional neurons permits us to cooperate and compete. We can also manipulate others for good purposes or bad.

The second is a talk by Bridget Martin Hard at Stanford. The talk is part of a series organized by Kelly McGonigal. The talks are available free on iTunes. I do not know if non-Apple computers will display them.

The only way I know to get to the talk is a little circuitous. First, go to Kelly McGonigal’s website and scroll down until you find ‘How to Think Like a Psychologist’.

Click on the download from iTunes (Check Out the Full Course on iTunes) and you will see a list of talks. The specific talk I recommend is the fourth in the list, by Bridget Martin Hard.

Hard talks in considerable detail about how human infants prefer cooperative people from a very early age. She makes the case that one of the primary things that sets humans apart from chimpanzees is our much larger ability to cooperate. Chimps are very smart in terms of competition, but very stupid in terms of cooperation. I do know that chimps do form raiding parties which kill other bands of chimps.

After an hour with Hard talking and discussing research, she sits down for about 15 minutes discussion with Kelly McGonagle. Kelly is concerned about how our human desire to fit in may cause us to do things that are probably not in our best interest. I think, for example, of the stirring movie Triumph of the Will, which celebrated the 1936 Nazi Party Congress. The Nazis were manipulating many of these factors for ends which most of us find repugnant. Of course, we see the same thing with the blizzard of propaganda circulating in the media at this very moment.

At 1 hour and 9 minutes, Hard answers a question regarding the different behavior of chimp mothers and human mothers which is very instructive. It is also instructive to think about how modern society is doing its best to destroy the playful interaction of mother and child.

When we think about productivity in a BAU world, or surviving a collapse, or rebuilding after a collapse, we have to think in terms of group dynamics. The talents which cooked food plus evolution has given us has both positive and negative potential. Wisdom may require us to know how this operates.

Tony Noerpel

thanks for all the links Don and all. my take:


seems like we are allheading in the same direction generally. :+)


Hi George OFF tropic for this subject but I missed your Conscious machine series and comments are closed on the subject- I'm wondering if you have considerd the memory trace problem in brain research? IE not being able to find any material traces in spite of decades of research. I know various cloud computing and displaced hologram analogies have been postulated but seem unconvincing. The amazing discovery that cater-pillars were taught to avoid a stimulus(Ethyl acetate)after undergoing two larval moults and metamorphosis within the pupae, the resultant moths still remembered what they had learned as caterpillars...this seems to me very difficult to explain by any recorded biochemical marker. If science cant come up with a plausible mechanism then how will this affect any design of artifical intelligence memory storage system? Apologies if you have covered this but ive missed it.

George Mobus

@Don S.,

Thanks Don. I will try to make time to watch Hard's talk especially. I have written in the past about the Grandmother hypothesis and the grandparent contribution to family and group dynamics. I see it as a major contributor to the evolution of sapience.

@Tony N.,

Truly! A lot of threads have been coming together in the minds of many more people. In a sense, that is why I no longer write about collapse per se. There are a growing number of people who are finally seeing the connections and picking up the themes to some degree or another. Frees me up to think about more positive things!


I'd forgotten that I had the comments shut down after 1 month. Awhile back I was getting flooded by spammers in random old posts so the folks at Typepad recommended I close comments after a month. I've now set that back to 6 months. Don't know if anyone can comment on posts that were already closed but if you want you can give it a try.

As for memory traces: some of the things I've been reading sure seem to confirm my hypothesis from the 80's! Looking for specific circuits in neocortical structures might still be daunting (though some new methods look promising to trace specific engrams) but tracing through strengthened synaptic connections in invertebrates like Aplysia (Eric Kandel) has been going on for quite a while. My Adaptrode model is based on that work.

I plan to continue with the conscious machine series, interleaving this systems science/political economy series. In an upcoming post I will review my prior work on memory traces through strengthened synaptic connections ala Kandel and Daniel Alkon ("Memory Traces in the Brain"). More to come.


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