In order to learn anything, you need feedback. If you answer a question in math and nobody tells you if you’re right or wrong, you won’t be able to grow. The Organism is no different and developed a reinforcement system to give feedback based on behavior. The three types of biological reinforcement are pleasure, pain, and disgust.
Pleasure is released when advantageous actions are taken, like eating or mating, in order to encourage the actions again. Pain is released when there has been damage done to the cells; you actually have specific receivers to detect damage throughout your body. Disgust is released in the case of severe potential harm that can be done to the Organism or its offspring. There is a reason rotten food and the thought of your parents naked repulses you. Neither of those are good for the propagation of the species.
Let’s start with the negative feedback signals involving avoidance. Pain is fairly simple to understand: it is triggered when damage is done and will stop when the cause of the damage is removed. Information gathered while pain is activated is synapsed to the pain so the Organism knows what to avoid for next time. If you walk outside and get stung by a bee, you might incorrectly pair the pain with “outside” instead of with the “bee sting.” Avoiding the outside will serve the same purpose as avoiding the bee in your mind, so mission accomplished.
Luckily for us, our brains have developed a poor memory when it comes to recording pain. Think about how confusing it would be if you couldn’t tell real pain from remembered pain. The actual feeling of pain will be forgotten quickly, though the memory of the pain occurring will be saved. You can probably think of times when you hurt yourself very badly but you cannot feel that pain again from just memory, you just remember that it hurt.
Have you ever gotten food poisoning? If you have, you know that it is one of the worst experiences. First you have to puke it all up and if that’s not bad enough, the next time you see or smell that food you want to vomit again! It makes no sense in today’s age since food poisoning is usually a fluke occurrence, but let’s think back to our ancestors.
If you were hungry and found some berries, you would probably eat them. If those berries make you vomit, you would probably avoid eating them again. You might even warn others about not eating that type of berry. Your feeling of disgust toward the poisonous food gives you a better chance of survival. Some stimulus has been solidified to disgust over generations like the smell of waste or rotting food.
Pleasure is the positive feedback system to encourage the Organism to do that action again. Pleasure is released when an organism eats, mates, or forms synapses. Pleasure is the brain’s way of signaling to the Organism that it did a good job and should keep up the good work.
The most interesting part of the feedback is the Organism’s dependence on the pleasure. Imagine you’re eating a sandwich and mid-bite someone comes up and takes it away. You were receiving pleasure from eating that and now you don’t have it. You are going to want to get it back so that you can have more pleasure. Usually this is solved with a simple request, though it wouldn’t be out of the question for a fight to break out.
Our dependence on pleasure is what drives drug addicts to such lengths in order to “score another hit.” It’s what pushes us to such lengths when courting the opposite sex. It’s what drives our insatiable curiosity; have you ever been in a group of friends and everyone knows the answer to a riddle but you? It’s infuriating! It’s caused by your desire to complete the neural path to gain more pleasure.
Pleasure is also released when new neural paths are synapsed; this explains why jokes are funniest the first time or why you might be ticklish in areas that aren’t often touched. Think about it, how often are the neurons in your armpit stimulated?
Pleasure can come from a feeling of security: staying in groups that look like you is a good way to improve chances of survival. Because we start out in small groups that look mostly like us, we begin to expect that all others look the same. Disgust can be released when a stimulus is different than expected as a defense measure to keep us safe.
When members of our species met for the first time after migration, many of them found the differences to be disgusting, simply because they were not used to it. A person who looks mostly like you but with one slight difference might be diseased. We didn’t know the true cause of the difference so our ancestors played it safe and listened to the Organism.
With a bit of time for the new synapses to become solidified, the disgust will die down. Try it yourself, look up pictures of insects or deep ocean fish. They’ll disgust you at first, but you’ll grow accustomed to it after a few minutes.
Every decision you make can be traced back to an attempt to avoid pain or disgust or an attempt to gain pleasure. Really, take a moment to think about the decisions you make and what causes those thoughts. You are a machine, though it doesn’t make you any less amazing. Instead, you are a machine that can know how you work which is even more amazing!