The Brain Speaks Out

Good Morning.

I’ll be speaking today about the basic functions of my department, Head Quarters. Many current descriptors of humans and their “mind”—”self-aware,” “highly intelligent,” “imaginative”—suggest common misunderstandings of how Head Quarters operates. My hope is that the Units we are responsible for will benefit from less lofty and more realistic notions of how Head Quarters coordinates their functions.

First, our Mission and basic operations. Head Quarters’ mission is to keep the Unit functioning and to prepare a replacement Unit to carry on after the present one becomes inactive. The various operations needed to carry out this mission are indicated on the diagram here of Head Quarters’ departments. Head Quarters continuously interprets streams of data coming in from around the Unit’s Network. It receives especially detailed data from the hands, mouth, and tongue. Data from external sounds and light sources arrive from the two pair of audio and visual receivers located adjacent to Head Quarters. Other data is handled routinely in round-the-clock monitoring of the Unit’s internal conditions, including levels of fuel, water, waste build-up, oxygen, and blood flow. Together with Lower Quarters, Head Quarters coordinates the processing of food intake.

Brain functions (AWMG.INFO)

The data is stored in Archives. Data that is retrieved often can be easily accessed. Older and background data can decay and become difficult to access accurately if at all.

Head Quarters is closed for business about a third of the time every twenty-four hours in order to perform such functions as offline consolidation, re-sorting of Archives, and resource replenishment.

Head Quarters implements certain Conditions—C-States—that bring on mild or intense sensations in the Unit for various lengths of time. Such Conditions trigger behaviors that are considered to support the Unit’s well-being in the short or long run. They are brought on by changes in the Unit’s surroundings, often by the presence or behavior of other Units.

Examples of common C-States include:

C-Joy, an energized state, short-lived but recurring, often activated by and reinforcing successful interactions with other Units;

C-Sadness, a low-energy condtion in which the Unit tends to withdraw from activity to recover from a setback;

C-Pain, a distressing state in part or all of the Unit that signals injury or dysfunction;

C-Arousal, the set of conditions leading to copulation; and

C-Anger, an energized state in anticipation of physical conflict with hostile Units.

A major portion of Head Quarters’ operations is the tracking of other Units. A few of these Other Units, or O-Units, have exchanged signals with Head Quarters since it first began functioning. They are labeled by generic indicators: mother, father, sister, parents. Archives contains full records about them. Other O-Units are encountered frequently but briefly and are less familiar.

All O-Units are continuously assessed for their probable assessment of this Unit, including its Head Quarters. Assessments in both directions are made as to whether an O-Unit seems friendly, trustworthy, indifferent, a possible sexual partner, higher or lower in status. For reasons of safety, O-Units are crudely classified as friendlies, neutrals, or hostiles. Head Quarters views the formation and preservation of alliances as an essential component of Unit well-being. To this end, the smile-expression and the laughter-sound are important but not fully reliable signals.

As for sound that the Unit can produce, Head Quarters is very skilled in their use to exchange information with O-Units. The foundation of the complex sound code is built in to every Units, though the specific signals vary widely. The sound code, an impressive achievement, is in almost constant use between Units. It enables a units to communicate about items that are either physically present or out of sight, in the past or anticipated in the future. Topics include strategies for food procurement, the expression of C-States, and the behavior of O-Units. The code is so compelling that it often runs silently as a default mode within Head Quarters. A visual version of the code is also in common use.

The sound code includes identification markers for all Units. Early in their functionality, each Unit receives a set of two markers, one that indicates its Unit group, the other indicating the Unit itself and its gender. An example is Petersen, a group marker, preceded by Mary, a female member. The Mary Petersen Unit identifies itself as Mary Petersen as well as I and me depending on the situation, and the Mary Petersen Head Quarters continually reviews the Mary Petersen past, the assessments of Mary Petersen by O-Units, and the plans and schedules for Mary Petersen.

Cumulatively, these processes result in the formulation of, and the belief in, what are known as Mary Petersen’s self and her life.

In conclusion, the multiple and multi-level processes coordinated by Head Quarters are demanding. While every Unit operates in the present, it must constantly attend to the past and the future as well. Head Quarters is a forward-looking instrument—flexible, capable, in constant adjustment as the present moment changes and changes again. For the well-being of the Unit, no single time frame is secure or complete without consideration of the other two.

Thank you for your attention. I think we have time for a few questions.

The Limits of Happiness?

If our expectations of happiness sometimes seem off-kilter, it’s because our understanding of emotions in general is not always accurate. It is tempting to think that emotions are available in pairs, that each pleasant emotion comes with a distressing version: happiness matched with sadness, bravery with fear, contentment with  frustration. And we might expect that people experience emotions in a wide range of intensities and durations. Depending on the person, sadness might last for a day or a decade, mildly or intensely. And and so might its counterpart, happiness.  As the sign says, “Happiness has no limits.”

happiness limits poster (

In How the Mind Works, Stephen Pinker says not so fast. For starters, “There are twice as many negative emotions (fear, grief, anxiety, and so on) as positive ones.” Try to count the common unpleasant emotions that come to mind, then try to think of the same number of positive ones.

Another clue that emotions don’t come in positive and negative pairs in all varieties, like shoes, is that “[P]eople’s mood plummets more when imagining a loss in their lives (for example, in course grades, or in relationships with the opposite sex) than it rises when imagining an equivalent gain.” Pinker quotes tennis star Jimmy Connors: “I hate to lose more than I like to win.”

So not only are negative feelings more plentiful than positive ones, but they pack a stronger punch as well.

Why? The benefits of happiness and the other positive feelings are, in evolutionary terms, more limited than we might think. Pinker: “The psychologist Timothy Ketelaar notes that happiness tracks the effect of resources on biological fitness. As things get better, increases in fitness show diminishing returns: more food is better, but only up to a point. But as things get worse, decreases in fitness can take you out of the game: not enough food, and you’re dead” (392).

So the dangers of of injury, illness, and enemies call for variable levels of distress to signal the seriousness of the threat—emotional smoke alarms that can grow louder and last longer as the threat intensifies. But the joys of health, sociability, creativity, and even spirituality don’t call for such intensification. In the long run, we wouldn’t gain from a capacity for increasingly intense joy or confidence or satisfaction or excitement. Too much joy for too long and we let our guard down.

So we care more about what could go wrong than about what could go better.