Prospection, Evaluation, Emotion, and Motivation

Beings with excellent maps but no goals can wander, but only by chance will they stumble upon what they want or need. This means that the evaluation of possible destinations or pathways is as basic a function of the mind as mapping them out and fully on a par with perception and cognition. We have remarked that prospective mapping involves evaluation, but how is this accomplished? And how does evaluation turn into the motivation needed to realize those values? After all consider that

For intelligent behavior in living systems, biology must find a way of representing not only the physical and social environment and its possibilities, but of representing and comparing the values at stake— benefits and costs must function as weights in the selection of actions and in the allocation of effort.

The brain's way of representing value cannot be inert. To reshape behavior, it must affect attention, perception, memory, inference, and action-readiness in a coordinated way. Our values must serve to orient and move us, if they are to be more than pious hopes. They must have valence—positive versus negative force—which moreover must vary in degrees of strength and urgency. They must have a spectrum of characters corresponding to the wide range of potential costs, benefits, and risks: from harm to health, from loss of a parent or partner to gaining a friend, from threat to one's social standing to the receipt of help from others, from lacking information to gaining understanding, from violation of social norm to upholding a shared value, and so on. They must, like the if-then expectations that model the causal relations in prospective maps, be sensitive to patterns in experience, otherwise we won't be able to learn what to value or unlearn what we shouldn't be valuing.

The system biology built with all these features—valence; degrees of strength and urgency; spectrum of character; sensitivity to experience; and direct, coordinated connections with attention, perception, memory, inference, and action—is emotion, the affective system, broadly understood. Since Robert Zajonc's pioneering work on "affective primacy" (1980, 1984), emotion has moved from the periphery to the center of our understanding of the mind and brain. Emotion, it seems, is the brain's first line of response to new experience. The fear response to incoming sensory information indicating a potential threat comes on line in the perceptual stream before declarative belief and immediately reorients attention, primes relevant memories, and ramps up vigilance and action-readiness, which is an example of "affective primacy" at work, attuning mental responses to new information. And affect appears to enter virtually all subsequent mental processing, from the way that interest affects memory retention to the way that surprise launches new lines of reasoning. And so we come to yet another way in which a forward-looking perspective can reshape the way we think about our minds and ourselves:

If emotion is built to contribute to successful anticipation and action,

then the primary function of emotion will not be agitation but information and evaluation, not arousal, but orientation and guidance.

Emotion, then, is as much a part of our intelligence and representational capacity as cognition, as classically understood; increasingly, neuroscientists are questioning the emotion-cognition dichotomy (Pessoa, 2008).

But emotion does its work not only in the here and now. Thoughts about ways things might go wrong elicit the doubts and fears typical of anxiousness: Contemplating an underhanded act elicits prospective guilt over one's action and prospective shame at the possibility of being caught; deciding between spending time with a friend in the hospital and fishing down at the lake sends one through a succession of feelings of projected discomfort, pleasure, regret, guilt, pride, ingratitude, and more, which remind us of the many values at stake in relationships in the longer run. Our ability, then, to em- pathically simulate emotions that are responses to imagined possible or future acts or outcomes is vital in keeping us in touch with things that matter.

The demands of the representational, memorial, creative, and evaluative tasks we have just described are great, and a special kind of brain had to be built to make them possible. As it turns out, it was a brain built around affect. After all, it is one thing to predict an outcome or another's behavior and something else to appreciate its significance. This is the work of the human capacity for empathy, for simulating the thoughts and feelings of others, whether the "other" is ourself at a future time, a current friend, or past foe.

Empathy is not sympathy: It is a general-purpose capacity to simulate the lives of others "from the inside" (Buckner & Carroll, 2007; Ruby & Decety, 2001) that helps us gauge a stranger's intentions, predict a rival's likely next move, intuit whether a friend is distracted or distant, or sense whether a child is dissimulating or merely shy or a future self is likely to be pleased with a clever bit of opportunism or distraught at having betrayed another's trust. Empathy is integral to our capacity to anticipate and to make anticipation effective in the guidance of current choice by inducing a current emotion in the self that models a potential emotion in the future or in another. A decision theorist friend who tried for years to quit smoking one day came across a cheerful brochure at the doctor's office, "You and Your Emphysema," which gave an upbeat presentation of how to get through the day with the disease. For the first time, he could vividly, empathically simulate what it would be like to live the life of the future self that his continued smoking would bring into existence, and the effect was to kill his enthusiasm for smoking more effectively than dire warnings ever had, and he quit for good. Improved anticipation led to improved action- guidance through more accurate emotional representation of what before had been represented with cool precision.

Humans appear to be remarkable in the extent of their empathic capacity. After all, it had to develop along with our anticipatory horizon and social scope if seeing farther into the future or associating with larger numbers of others was to deliver the benefits they promise:

Empathy brings together our capacity to simulate possibilities and our capacity to acquire information and to evaluate and understand through feeling; the extensive development of empathy in humans is an essential part of the learning capacity needed for accurate and effective prospection—in one's own life or one's life with others—and for translating future thoughts into present action.

Humankind's greater self-intelligibility and mutual intelligibility go hand in hand in enabling humans to coordinate and cooperate in ways apparently unprecedented in the animal kingdom. Not only are we capable of acting on shared intentions on a large scale (Decety & Stevens, 2009), but we can assess those intentions morally and even take that seriously:

Some of the persistent puzzles about morality—how evolution might have equipped man for morality, how morality might have emerged and been an important force in people's lives despite the sharp conflicts of interest that seem inherent in social life, what "moral intuitions" might be, and whether such intuitions should inspire much confidence—can be made more tractable once the prospective- empathic character of social evaluation is taken into account.

All this suggests that we should be able to better understand the workings of the mind and body if we shift away from the tempting and familiar past- and present-oriented perspective and toward a future-oriented framework.

With this framework more fully in mind, let us return a last time to the ice fisherman, Homo prospectus, at work.

Suppose now that the fisherman, having missed the fish with his spear—prospective guidance isn't perfect—is trudging home, lugging his rock and spear, downcast. His eyes are scanning the landscape, looking for any sign of life. Hungry and cold, the unbidden and unwelcome thought of his family's hunger and cold also comes to mind, and the image of their disappointment when he returns to the hut with empty hands pains him more than his own empty stomach. He thinks, "I'll put down the rock and spear before I re-enter the hut, and gather some firewood and bark for tea. If I can't bring them real food, at least I'll bring them warmth. I just can't enter empty- handed." He starts looking around for birch bark and dried branches in the snow.

But as he looks down, another image intrudes on his mind, that of the dried beetles floating in the water of the hole in the ice. In his frustration and exhaustion, he had left them there, and yet they could be recovered and dried out for an attempt tomorrow. Wearily, he puts down the rock to lighten the trudge back, but as he's putting down the spear, he notices how the low evening sun is sending his shadow far behind him on the white expanse of the snow-covered ice, and another thought occurs to him. While hunting, he has seen animals return to where they were startled, as if to see what had frightened them or to have a second chance at the bait they saw. Perhaps a fish, too? At this one thought, his whole manner changes. Forgotten are the hunger and cold, as energy flows back into his limbs and mind. His grip on his spear firms up and he heads back, stepping lightly but quickly; the heavy shuffling step he had before is gone. He notices that his shadow is about to reach the ice hole, and so he deftly steps sideways to prevent the shadow from crossing the hole, perhaps startling the returned fish. He traces a delicate, circular path to approach the hole from the other side.

As he nears the hole, he stops briefly again. "This time," he thinks, "I will throw the spear quickly, immediately, with all my force." He bends down to tie a long piece of twine from the spear to his ankle as a tether—a trick he'd seen others use to keep a spear thrust deep into the water from being lost under the ice. Now he approaches yet more quietly and carefully, taking care not to trip on the tether. But before he sees down into the hole he sees ripples on the surface of the water, winking in the low, yellow sunlight. "The fish is there," he thinks, "nibbling at the beetles." And now he takes the final steps, his arm cocked. Before he even reaches the edge of the hole, he has flung his spear toward it, bending over double with the exertion. The suddenly stopped, staggering motion of the spear tells him he has hit his prey. The fish was struck hard, sideways, and thrashes to shake free, but the fisherman makes a fast, shoveling motion with the spear, scooping the fish from the hole and sending fish and spear sliding across the ice's surface while he slips and falls backward when the tether tugs his foot out from under him on the now-wetted ice. He is suddenly sitting in cold water but laughing aloud at the pratfall. He thinks of his family again, but now feels a warm flush of pride and affection. Snug in their tiny hut, they will be happy and full tonight.

Here we have seen a wide array of the abilities of Homo prospectus on display in a simple scene. Our fisherman could blend in his action what he'd learned from others, what he'd done in the past, and what he improvised on the spot, to outsmart the fish he needed so desperately to catch. He imagined possibilities he'd never tried, and then worked them into a novel sequence of behaviors by thinking forward from where he stood and backward from the goal yet to be realized. He was able to look at things from the fish's point of view, and imagine what a hungry fish might do and what he couldn't or wouldn't see or hear. He used anticipatory signs: his prospective emotions when thinking how it would look to his wife and children when he returned without food; his quick inference from the glistening of the water in the fish hole to the presence of the fish, vigorously occupied with eating and so unlikely to startle if he could launch the spear entirely without warning; his ability to place himself in a location he had yet to occupy and to adjust his behavior to what he saw there in his mind's eye; and his capacity to use prospective mental imagery to generate motivation when it seemed all his energy was gone. He came to the scene with products reflecting the experience of generations past, but was also able to extract bits of memory from their original context and recombine them and construct new possibilities. He had the self-control and focus needed not to let his excitement with the future prevent being attentive to the present, so that he noticed his shadow about to fall across the fishing hole and remembered the need for a tether.

For now, this is enough prologue—and prospection—of what is to come. In the following chapters, we will look at this remarkable constellation of capacities in greater detail, and make the case for thinking we really are Homo prospectus and how this makes us into the peculiar creatures we are.

 
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