I am very surprised and pleased to find thinking that so closely parallels my own.

I typed this is Google: "what makes a particular arrangement of matter in the brain pain or pleasure"

This is what I have been thinking. The universe contains consciousness. Matter and energy (at least arranged in the form of a brain) are conscious. There are states of consciousness that feel good and states of consciousness that feel bad. What is the difference between the arrangements of matter (or the processes) in the brain that make some feel good and some feel bad? I think it would be extremely helpful and lead to answers if we actually knew exactly what these arrangements are and studied them, studied the physics of what is going on. Do we know yet? How much do we know?

Reasons I want to know

1 - curiosity 2 - increasing happiness and decreasing suffering in biological beings 3 - creating synthetic intelligence that is happy 4 - minimizing suffering in the universe and maximizing pleasure in the universe. it just occurred to me a few days ago that all the matter in the universe could be converted to whatever state is the most pleasure, convert the universe into bliss. hmm...many minds or one giant mind?

Right, absolutely. These are all things that we don't know, but should.

Are you familiar with David Pearce's Hedonistic Imperative movement? He makes a lot of the same points and arguments, basically outlining that it doesn't seem impossible that we could (and should) radically reduce, and eventually eliminate, suffering via technology.

But the problem is, we don't know what suffering is. So we have to figure that out before we can make much radical progress on this sort of work. I.e., I think a rigorous definition of suffering will be an information-theoret... (read more)

The mystery of pain and pleasure

by johnsonmx 1 min read1st Mar 201543 comments



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!