Human brain model showing brain stem, frontal, parietal and temporal lobes and cerebellum, the dark structures in the rear. The limbic center of the brain is obscured. Generally, the brain’s function can be described this way: 1. Sensory stimuli come in. 2. Hippocampus and related structures of temporal lobe form strong memories if it is very positive stimulus (feels good) or if it is very frightening (amygdala). Strong memories tune the brain preferentially to future rewards and dangers. 3. The much expanded frontal cortex plans how to obtain rewards and avoid dangers or social penalties. 4. Newly evolved areas such as Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas use language to encode and communicate reality, especially “plans” to obtain more rewards and avoid dangers in a socially cohesive group. Some humans make plans to plant seeds to obtain a reward distant in time – agriculture. Planning within the matrix of time is something very powerful as opposed to just reacting to environmental cues to obtain rewards.
In your waking moments it may seem that “you” are in control of your actions and thoughts. Who are you? I would posit that at most of you are a memory of yourself (which may be accurate or not) that is dredged up from your neurons every time you ask yourself “Who am I?” When you see yourself in your mind, you’re looking at a large system of cells that must obtain energy and maintain homeostasis. Does the image in your brain accomplish that? No. Most of the behaviors that assure your homeostasis are automatic and beyond conscious deliberation with various cytokines ebbing and flowing to induce certain behaviors and various sensory neurons informing the brain of the necessity of some particular behavior, like eating or going to the bathroom.
Even though the brain is capable of learning, it must be kept upon a tight leash regarding its motivations and general direction. The direction, by physical necessity is the acquisition of rewards (food, sex, power, water) and the avoidance of dangers. If humans were free to do anything and were not continuously shunted into behaviors resulting in rewards, then the species would likely go extinct. It would be perfectly acceptable to spend ones time counting the blades of grass in the front lawn until death from lack of nourishment occurred. Instead of having free will to do anything we please, the brain has evolved to make sure we pursue things that feel good, things that when experienced result in the release of dopamine. A positive experience results in a memory, reinforced through the release of dopamine which is more likely than other memories to reenter our working memory at a future date. In other words, our working memories, our minds, are set up to preferentially entertain thoughts of rewards upon which we can act. Given all the things there are to think about in this world, the individual’s brain is likely to be entertaining thoughts of eating, where to eat, sex, whom to pursue as a mate, and if the prefrontal cortex is fully taxed there may even be elaborate plans to achieve some future reward. We may also think about or worry about things that are dangerous, like whether the IRS is going to audit our tax returns, whether the pit bull down the street will chase us while we’re taking a walk, whether our blood pressure is elevated and so forth. These thoughts are preferential and automatic, entering the working memory much more often due to their strength and importance to our survival. We are not fully in control of what think about, the brain makes the selections for us, making sure we’re almost always considering our next reward and/or avoiding danger.
In this model of the brain the brain stem and many of the central limbic structures are flanked on each side by the temporal lobes where the hippocampus and related structures are found. The hippocampus and nearby structures strengthen memories associated with rewards which will be preferentially recalled later.
The manner in which the brain makes us consider rewards, winning, competition and dangers has been instilled over millions of years of evolution. Obtaining rewards in the form of food, avoiding danger and reaching an elevated position in the dominance hierarchy were key to survival. Our minds try to maximize energy returns to our behavior subconsciously, beyond our conscious thought or observation. Why do people drive around parking lots looking for the closest parking spot to the entrance of a building while wasting gasoline? Because there is an energy conserving algorithm in human brains that makes them take the most direct path. If a reward in the wild were twenty meters away, but our primitive Homo sapiens always took an extra thirty meters to arrive at the reward, how much net energy would be obtained? Would another person obtain the reward first? Most people think it was free will that made them take the shortest path possible, but it was decided for them. We are preoccupied with rewards, rewards to our portfolios, academic awards, sports awards, social rewards, material rewards and so on, without the least concern for the damage we are creating around us. We are a reward seeking automatons. The algorithms in our brains, when coupled with the newly emerged information and tool making capabilities of System II, have resulted in a cancerous explosion, and few seem to care or are unwilling to alter their evolved behaviors. The cellular balance and homeostasis of the human body is commonly upset by an occurrence of renegade cancerous cells often resulting in death. Likewise, the balance and homeostasis existing amongst species within the ecosystem is being upset by a technological cancer, the renegade Homo sapiens bearing new information and tools and a brain stem and limbic brain that pushes for ever more rewards in competition with others.
A large portion of the brain’s cortex, the outer pink area, typically with six layer of neurons, is associated with primary sensory perception, some areas are involved with association, emotions, thinking and planning, and some areas for memory formation and storage. The absence of rewards in the environment will often lead to depression, a lack of motivation to move, an energy saving strategy when rewards are scarce.
This is what happens when the “rewards” stop coming. Come to think of it, even warfare is about obtaining rewards, often with complex planning on how to defeat the “enemy” and get the reward.
It would seem that if our leaders were apprised of mankind’s eventually lethal preoccupation with converting the entire ecosystem into rewards and a reward distribution system, that they would take some ameliorative action. But it seems that those in positions of power are perhaps the greediest of all and mostly preoccupied with feathering their own nests while making false promises to do likewise for others. The human mantra must include “more jobs and growth”, “if it feels good do it” and “be happy”. The entire human brain, including the vaunted prefrontal cortices are preoccupied with obtaining reward while failing to appreciate obtuse dangers that will eventually manifest in catastrophic loss of life.
Our eventual reward will be destitution if we’re lucky.