18 September 2022 2:52 AM (transnaturalism | musing)
Let's consider the hedonic treadmill. Briefly, this is the phenomenon where humans who experience a pervasive change in life circumstance will feel very happy or sad about it and then slowly return to somewhere around normal. This is somewhat unfortunate if you happen to be a human. It means you can invest lots of time and resources into improving your circumstances and eventually end up only a little bit happier than you were before, if that.
Because the naturally evolved mind is a pile of kludges on kludges on kludges on kludges, if you pull on a string and unravel part of it, the likely person you would become is someone you don't want to be. Rolling around in bliss at the fact you have ready access to nutrition, your preferred climate any time of the day or night, and outstanding beauty from examining a leaf or the ripples on water might be fun, but most people would prefer not to become someone who does nothing but roll around in bliss all day long-term.
The returns aren't exactly to normal. People who were in food insecurity for a while are generally happier long-term after achieving food security. Not lots happier, but happier. In many cases who acquire disabilities will experience extreme distress for a while that eventually rises up close to their previous level. People with congenital disabilities that are later improved will tend to feel much happier for a while and then go back to somewhere near the previous level. This matches my own experience both with an acquired then cured medical condition, and with improvements in public transportation enhancing my mobility.
This leads to a thought experiment: If we could install memories of having been disabled in an able person, would they experience the same temporary increase in wellbeing? But then we have to ask, Which kind of memory? There are multiple memory stores. Broadly speaking there's the explicit memory (autobiographical being the most well-known type) and the implicit memory (with procedural memory of skills one can use without consciously thinking through them as the most well-known type.)
Intuitively, it seems that autobiographical memory shouldn't be enough. If we dream of being incapacitated we might feel a sense of relief on waking, but we don't enjoy the same kind of liberated well-being that we do after relief of intense but short-lived back spasm, or at least I don't.
We can imagine a world where someone with permanent anterograde amnesia develops paraplegia and wonder whether they would go through the same pattern of returning to near the previous baseline. If so then that pattern should be based on the implicit memory, as implicit memory has been shown to be intact in these cases. Anterograde amnesia is so rare I don't actually know whether anyone who suffers from it has ever experienced that kind of serious disability while retaining otherwise good health and then going on to live for some time.
They have, however, experienced anterograde amnesia, one of the most debilitating conditions one can have. Anecdotal evidence (Oliver Sacks, various interviews and stories on famous cases) suggests that at least some follow the pattern. If this is the case it suggests that the implicit memory might be the driver of the hedonic treadmill.
It feels plausible that our implicit memories might adapt and self-correct for differing difficulty levels, that our feeling of baseline happiness might go down if we keep hitting more difficulty than we've calibrated for in actions and go up when things feel easier. This is complementary to ideas that link mood disorders to the brain's level of perceived predictive error.
If it is correct, it supports my intuition that learning is an activity that can reliably escape the hedonic treadmill. Even if much learning feels like gaining declarative, explicit knowledge, learning to think in certain ways, manipulate symbols according to certain rules, developing domain appropriate intuition and the like exercise the implicit memory (as demonstrated by analogues of the Tetris effect from learning theoretical subjects like math or physics.) It also gives me interesting worldbuilding ideas for fictional transnatural civilizations that intentionally modify implicit memory to expect more difficulty to increase overall wellbeing.
I wondered if any antidepressants target the implicit memory and my brief investigation indicates that the answer 'we don't know' because we're only starting to get the slightest idea how implicit memory even works. However, I did run into a study that measured verbal tasks thought to exercise explicit and implicit memory separately, and found that people suffering from major depression had deficits in the explicit but not implicit memory task relative to their performance during remission. This does not contradict my idea but it doesn't support it either. If major depression correlated strongly with a deficit in implicit memory, I'd definitely think I was on to something.