The Power to Construct Options

Let us investigate the basis of what we shall call the productivity of human option construction, our ability to construct option sets of truly large size.

Consider a rat approaching a fork in a maze. The rat mentally represents two candidate actions available to it, going right or going left. Moreover, because it has explored the maze before, it has formed expectations of what would be the case were either option taken. The rat represents that going right will yield a reward while going left will not, and on this basis, the option of going right is selected.

Now contrast this scenario with a young woman in her second year of college. March is approaching and she is thinking about how to spend her spring break. Her friends will go to Tampa for a week of tawdry parties. Her family would love if she came home. She might stay in the dormitory and study, she thinks. If she is to get into medical school as she plans, she will need to do better in biochemistry, and the break will be a good chance to catch up in the course. But why does she want to go to medical school anyway? She spends every free moment she can dancing in the studio, and that is what she really wants to do. But is a career as a dancer even realistic? Better to deal with that question later, she thinks. For now, wouldn't it be wonderful to spend the entire break in the studio? There would be no one to bother her and no place she had to be instead. Of course, the next tuition bill will be coming due soon. So maybe at least some of the break could be spent making some extra money tutoring. Or maybe she could pick up those extra tutoring hours after spring break. Or still better than that, she could work the entire break, then she wouldn't need to juggle school and work for the rest of the term. But what about being able to dance all break? She would just hate to have to give that up—and so it goes.

The example illustrates that the construction of options unfolds fast and furious, and with very little need for conscious guidance or supervision. The student sets her mind to think about what she could do and the options just burst forth. What explains this remarkable productivity of option construction in humans relative to simpler creatures such as the rat?

One important explanatory factor is that with humans, the individual options that are constructed are complex and consist of numerous constituent parts. Humans have the ability to form sequential plans, chains of actions linked in a coordinated way to achieve a goal. Plans are characteristically decomposable into parts, each of which achieves some proximal goal (Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960): To become a physician, one must graduate from college with the right major, take entrance exams, and fill out applications. To graduate from college with the right major, one must enroll in the right classes. One such class is biochemistry. To pass this class, one must attend the lectures, complete the accompanying lab, and study all the time, perhaps even during spring break.

When sequential planning is allowed, the space of potential options vastly increases. Suppose a creature has 10 individual primitive actions it can perform, such as running, pushing, grasping, chewing, and turning. If sequential planning is not allowed, the possible options are capped at 10. But if sequentially organized 15-item action sequences are allowed, there are more than 1.3 trillion unique courses of action the creature can potentially undertake.

Another closely related factor for explaining the productivity of option construction is extended time horizon. The existing evidence suggests that nonhuman animals cannot represent goings on at points in time in the distant future. Some studies place the time horizon of nonhuman animals at just a few minutes; others allow that in some contexts, some animals might prospect as far as day (Roberts, 2002). Humans, in contrast, can readily mentally represent events and episodes that are days, years, decades, and indeed millennia in the future, long after they as individuals, or even as a species, will have perished. The time horizon of humans appears to be essentially boundless.

The preceding two factors—sequential planning and extended time horizon—are enabled by a suite of other sophisticated capacities. Central among these are powerful abilities for prospective imaginal simulation; we can mentally project ourselves into temporally distant hypothetical situations. Indeed, there appears to be a set of interconnected brain regions, called the default network, specialized for this purpose (Raichle et al., 2001). This is a network of regions in the brain's midline and posterior lateral areas that have reliably been implicated in prospective thinking (Spreng, Mar, & Kim, 2008), as well as other cognitive tasks that involve projecting oneself into different times, places, situations, or perspectives (Buckner & Carroll, 2007). Areas of the default network have undergone extensive elaboration in the transition from mammalian ancestors to modern humans (Buckner, Andrews-Hanna, & Schacter, 2008). The expanded abilities for prospective simulation thus enabled likely plays a key role in explaining why capacities for sequential planning are more powerful and our time horizon more distant.

Let us turn to another factor that contributes to the productivity of human option construction: the ability for meta-representation, that is, the ability to mentally represent one's own psychological states. To appreciate the importance of this capacity for option construction (and relatedly, for free will), start by considering Harry Frankfurt's influential account of freedom.

Frankfurt argued that while humans and simpler animals are alike in having first-order desires (desires to do this or that), humans are unique in having the ability to form second-order desires (desires about which desires to have). Humans also have the ability to form desires of still higher order. He argued that the ability to form higher-order desires is intimately connected to freedom; agents are free when their first-order desires mesh with their higher-order desires.

One way of both further understanding, as well as importantly recasting Frankfurt's insight, is in terms of how the ability for metarepresentation dramatically expands an agent's space of options. Suppose you are an agent with various action-guiding psychological states, including various desires, cravings, cares, concerns, evaluative beliefs, habits, character traits, and principles of choice. Let us suppose you lack meta-representational capacities. Now suppose you are an agent, who has precisely this same set of action-guiding psychological states, but who differs in having robust meta-representational capacities.

Notice you will have vastly more options that you can construct. For each psychological attitude that you have (i.e., for each desire, craving, care, concern, and so on), you can construct options in which you maintain, accentuate, resist, regulate, extinguish, or in some other way modify this desire. Indeed, you can construct options in which you cultivate entirely new desires that differ from anything in your existing psychological repertoire. Agents lacking meta-representational abilities cannot recognize and mentally represent their own psychological states in this way. Thus they can't see their own mental states as "optional," as things that could be different were certain courses of action undertaken. Because of this deficit, their space of options is importantly constrained.

An additional factor that helps to explain the productivity of human option construction is creativity. Consider some examples. Although everyone else thinks it's impossible to breach the walls of Troy, Odysseus devises a brilliant plan to accomplish this. Cyrano takes himself to be too hideous to approach Roxanne, but he hits on an idea: He can express his feelings for her in letters that are disguised to be from someone else. Siddhartha sees suffering all around him. After extensive meditation, he emerges with an eightfold path aimed at its cessation. Seeing that everyone carries around a cellphone, Steve Jobs invents a way to place the functionality of a personal computer inside of it.

Humans have awesome abilities for creativity, and this is the topic of Chapter 11. They can find new ways to achieve their ends, where these ways are quite different from anything that has come before. According to current theories in cognitive science, a number of component processes are involved in creativity. For example, creativity requires facility with divergent, "nonlinear" thinking (see Baer, 1993; Kim, 2008; Runco, 1991). This mode of thinking is tested in tasks that pose open-ended questions (e.g., How many uses can you create for a paper clip?), and the measure of success is the number of acceptable responses made in a fixed amount of time. Creativity also appears to be linked to analogical reasoning (see Gentner, Brem, Ferguson, & Wolff, 1997; Holyoak & Thagard, 1996; Johnson-Laird, 1989). Analogy involves forming an isomorphism between the objects and relations that hold across two distinct domains. Once an isomorphism is discovered, known operations applicable to one domain might lead to the development of novel corresponding operations in the second. Other theories emphasize the "perseverance" aspect of creative thought (see Campbell, 1960; Simonton, 1999): Finding creative solutions requires brute force, iterative generation, and testing of innumerable combinations of ideas until a suitable solution is found.

The psychology and neuroscience of creativity remain active areas of investigation, and the preceding represent only a small sampling from this literature. The point we want to emphasize is that because of the kinds of processes just discussed, we are an intensely creative species. When we face obstacles in our way, we invent new ways around them. As a result, the option sets we construct are always expanding.

The preceding four factors—sequential plans, extended time horizon, meta-representational capacities, and creativity—work together to help to explain the remarkable human ability to build vast options sets, certainly bigger than any other creature in the animal world. Moreover, this is no idle ability that we possess but rarely use. Constructing options is a ubiquitous activity. We spin out options at a rapid clip whenever the situation demands it, and also when it doesn't—when we are sitting quietly just daydreaming. In the next section, we will see how building options gives rise to latitude in expressing our selves in countless ways.

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