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The mystery of pain and pleasure

8 johnsonmx 01 March 2015 07:47PM


Some arrangements of particles feel better than others. Why?

We have no general theories, only descriptive observations within the context of the vertebrate brain, about what produces pain and pleasure. It seems like there's a mystery here, a general principle to uncover.

Let's try to chart the mystery. I think we should, in theory, be able to answer the following questions:

(1) What are the necessary and sufficient properties for a thought to be pleasurable?

(2) What are the characteristic mathematics of a painful thought?

(3) If we wanted to create an artificial neural network-based mind (i.e., using neurons, but not slavishly patterned after a mammalian brain) that could experience bliss, what would the important design parameters be?

(4) If we wanted to create an AGI whose nominal reward signal coincided with visceral happiness -- how would we do that?

(5) If we wanted to ensure an uploaded mind could feel visceral pleasure of the same kind a non-uploaded mind can, how could we check that? 

(6) If we wanted to fill the universe with computronium and maximize hedons, what algorithm would we run on it?

(7) If we met an alien life-form, how could we tell if it was suffering?

It seems to me these are all empirical questions that should have empirical answers. But we don't seem to have much for hand-holds which can give us a starting point.

Where would *you* start on answering these questions? Which ones are good questions, and which ones are aren't? And if you think certain questions aren't good, could you offer some you think are?


As suggested by shminux, here's some research I believe is indicative of the state of the literature (though this falls quite short of a full literature review):

Tononi's IIT seems relevant, though it only addresses consciousness and explicitly avoids valence. Max Tegmark has a formal generalization of IIT which he claims should apply to non-neural substrates. And although Tegmark doesn't address valence either, he posted a recent paper on arxiv noting that there *is* a mystery here, and that it seems topical for FAI research.

Current models of emotion based on brain architecture and neurochemicals (e.g., EMOCON) are somewhat relevant, though ultimately correlative or merely descriptive, and seem to have little universalization potential.

There's also a great deal of quality literature about specific correlates of pain and happiness- e.g., Building a neuroscience of pleasure and well-being and An fMRI-Based Neurologic Signature of Physical Pain. Luke covers Berridge's research in his post, The Neuroscience of Pleasure. Short version: 'liking', 'wanting', and 'learning' are all handled by different systems in the brain. Opioids within very small regions of the brain seem to induce the 'liking' response; elsewhere in the brain, opioids only produce 'wanting'. We don't know how or why yet. This sort of research constrains a general principle, but doesn't really hint toward one.


In short, there's plenty of research around the topic, but it's focused exclusively on humans/mammals/vertebrates: our evolved adaptations, our emotional systems, and our architectural quirks. Nothing on general or universal principles that would address any of (1)-(7). There is interesting information-theoretic / patternist work being done, but it's highly concentrated around consciousness research.




Bottom line: there seems to be a critically important general principle as to what makes certain arrangements of particles innately preferable to others, and we don't know what it is. Exciting!

Is Kiryas Joel an Unhappy Place?

20 gwern 23 April 2011 12:08AM

I was browsing my RSS feed, as one does, and came across a New York Times article, "A Village With the Numbers, Not the Image, of the Poorest Place", about the Satmar Hasidic Jews of Kiryas Joel (NY).

Their interest lies in their extraordinarily high birthrate & population growth, and their poverty - which are connected. From the article:

"...officially, at least, none of the nation’s 3,700 villages, towns or cities with more than 10,000 people has a higher proportion of its population living in poverty than Kiryas Joel, N.Y., a community of mostly garden apartments and town houses 50 miles northwest of New York City in suburban Orange County.

About 70 percent of the village’s 21,000 residents live in households whose income falls below the federal poverty threshold, according to the Census Bureau. Median family income ($17,929) and per capita income ($4,494) rank lower than any other comparable place in the country. Nearly half of the village’s households reported less than $15,000 in annual income. About half of the residents receive food stamps, and one-third receive Medicaid benefits and rely on federal vouchers to help pay their housing costs.

Kiryas Joel’s unlikely ranking results largely from religious and cultural factors. Ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jews predominate in the village; many of them moved there from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, beginning in the 1970s to accommodate a population that was growing geometrically. Women marry young, remain in the village to raise their families and, according to religious strictures, do not use birth control. As a result, the median age (under 12) is the lowest in the country and the household size (nearly six) is the highest. Mothers rarely work outside the home while their children are young. Most residents, raised as Yiddish speakers, do not speak much English. And most men devote themselves to Torah and Talmud studies rather than academic training — only 39 percent of the residents are high school graduates, and less than 5 percent have a bachelor’s degree. Several hundred adults study full time at religious institutions.

...Because the community typically votes as a bloc, it wields disproportionate political influence, which enables it to meet those challenges creatively. A luxurious 60-bed postnatal maternal care center was built with $10 million in state and federal grants. Mothers can recuperate there for two weeks away from their large families. Rates, which begin at $120 a day, are not covered by Medicaid, although, Mr. Szegedin said, poorer women are typically subsidized by wealthier ones.

...The village does aggressively pursue economic opportunities. A kosher poultry slaughterhouse, which processes 40,000 chickens a day, is community owned and considered a nonprofit organization. A bakery that produces 800 pounds of matzo daily is owned by one of the village’s synagogues.

Most children attend religious schools, but transportation and textbooks are publicly financed. Several hundred handicapped students are educated by the village’s own public school district, which, because virtually all the students are poor and disabled, is eligible for sizable state and federal government grants.

... Still, poverty is largely invisible in the village. Parking lots are full, but strollers and tricycles seem to outnumber cars. A jeweler shares a storefront with a check-cashing office. To avoid stigmatizing poorer young couples or instilling guilt in parents, the chief rabbi recently decreed that diamond rings were not acceptable as engagement gifts and that one-man bands would suffice at weddings. Many residents who were approached by a reporter said they did not want to talk about their finances.

...Are as many as 7 in 10 Kiryas Joel residents really poor? “It is, in a sense, a statistical anomaly,” Professor Helmreich said. “They are clearly not wealthy, and they do have a lot of children. They spend whatever discretionary income they have on clothing, food and baby carriages. They don’t belong to country clubs or go to movies or go on trips to Aruba.

...David Jolly, the social services commissioner for Orange County, also said that while the number of people receiving benefits seemed disproportionately high, the number of caseloads — a family considered as a unit — was much less aberrant. A family of eight who reports as much as $48,156 in income is still eligible for food stamps, although the threshold for cash assistance ($37,010), which relatively few village residents receive, is lower....“You also have no drug-treatment programs, no juvenile delinquency program, we’re not clogging the court system with criminal cases, you’re not running programs for AIDS or teen pregnancy,” he [Mr. Szegedin, the village administrator] said. “I haven’t run the numbers, but I think it’s a wash.”

From Wikipedia:

The land for Kiryas Joel was purchased in 1977, and fourteen Satmar families settled there. By 2006, there were over 3,000...In 1990, there were 7,400 people in Kiryas Joel; in 2000, 13,100, nearly doubling the population. In 2005, the population had risen to 18,300, a rate of growth suggesting it will double again in the ten years between 2000 and 2010.

Robin Hanson has argued that uploaded/emulated minds will establish a new Malthusian/Darwinian equilibrium in "IF UPLOADS COME FIRST: The crack of a future dawn" - an equilibrium in comparison to which our own economy will look like a delusive dreamtime of impossibly unfit and libertine behavior. The demographic transition will not last forever. But despite our own distaste for countless lives living at near-subsistence rather than our own extreme per-capita wealth (see the Repugnant Conclusion), those many lives will be happy ones (even amidst disaster).

So. Are the inhabitants of Kiryas Joel unhappy?

Growing Up is Hard

28 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 January 2009 03:55AM

Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species is the best book I've ever read on the evolution of intelligence.  Deacon somewhat overreaches when he tries to theorize about what our X-factor is; but his exposition of its evolution is first-class.

Deacon makes an excellent case—he has quite persuaded me—that the increased relative size of our frontal cortex, compared to other hominids, is of overwhelming importance in understanding the evolutionary development of humanity.  It's not just a question of increased computing capacity, like adding extra processors onto a cluster; it's a question of what kind of signals dominate, in the brain.

People with Williams Syndrome (caused by deletion of a certain region on chromosome 7) are hypersocial, ultra-gregarious; as children they fail to show a normal fear of adult strangers.  WSers are cognitively impaired on most dimensions, but their verbal abilities are spared or even exaggerated; they often speak early, with complex sentences and large vocabulary, and excellent verbal recall, even if they can never learn to do basic arithmetic.

Deacon makes a case for some Williams Syndrome symptoms coming from a frontal cortex that is relatively too large for a human, with the result that prefrontal signals—including certain social emotions—dominate more than they should.

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