Human Nature

Some Topics

Reward and Punishment

The deepest dialectic in the mind is approach and avoidance. Objects of desire are approached. Objects of fear are avoided. Rewards and punishments drive approach and avoidance. Pleasure and pain are feeling states that express feelings attached to reward and punishment. There is a tension in humans that will never go away. Humans want things. The human sense of time is warped around desires and the sense of sequences is built from needs and desires. The drives that organize projects in the world are balanced between two reciprocal tendencies – to venture out and seek rewards that satisfy needs and to avoid punishment by exercising caution and retreating when necessary to avoid danger. This dialectic is basic to animal systems and continues into the most advanced human thought processes.

Higher level planning is built on a foundation of innate drives. The basic vocabulary of drives involves body needs felt as desires, rehearsed as fantasies and expressed as goal-oriented behavior. The outside view is that humans are driven to find rewards, gratifications of basic body needs. If you are optimistic, the world out there looks promising and you head out on a search for rewards, things that will please you. The human brain is an amplifier that turns small signals in large efforts. The energy required to work every day is considerable. The signals inside the brain that organize the work and keep the sequence going day after day are minute

Anticipatory states involve recognizing the body need and organizing a behavior sequence to satisfy that need. Hunger is the feeling; appetite is the drive, hunting for food is the seeking behavior, eating is the consuming behavior and satiety is the feeling of gratification that follows. Eating food involves pleasurable sensations, mostly in the mouth and internal chemical signals that regulate brain states. Humans use a variety of words to describe the complete experience of searching for and finding things we need or believe we need: “I like. I need. I wish. I want. I love. I have to have. I need to have. I hope. I desire. My dream is to… My goal is to…” These words reveal a progression from the first rumblings of need inside the body to the consummation of the drive.

Humans have a small number of essential needs and a large number of derivative, non-essential needs. Animal needs propel us into the world in search of gratification. As we approach our goal, avoidance programs emerge and we become more alert, cautious and are ready to flee to avoid illness, injury and death. Positive feelings are associated with seeking behaviors that encourage us to find good food, clean water, safe places to rest and nice to people to share all of the above. Yang and Shadlen suggested; ‘”Our brains allow us to reason about alternatives and to make choices that are likely to pay off. Often there is no one correct answer, but instead one that is favored simply because it is more likely to lead to reward. We show that rhesus monkeys can also achieve such reasoning. We have trained two monkeys to choose between a pair of colored targets after viewing four shapes, shown sequentially, that governed the probability that one of the targets would furnish reward. Monkeys learned to combine probabilistic information from the shape combinations. Moreover, neurons in the parietal cortex reveal the addition and subtraction of probabilistic quantities that underlie decision-making on this task.”

Animal learning is based on establishing enduring memories of rewards and punishment. The most tenacious memories are formed when punishment follows an action. Rewards are generally weaker and must be repeated to form an enduring memory. Chemical rewards such as alcohol or heroin are powerful and can quickly establish recurrent drives and approach behaviors that are difficult to extinguish. The close linking of a behavior to a reward or punishment is “conditioning.”

While humans are strongly conditioned and often act like programmed robots, another level of anticipatory planning, risk assessment and strategic self control can provide more optional behaviors that suggest “free will.” Humans regulate each others' behavior with rewards and punishments. Affiliations are based on promising and then delivering rewards. Children are trained buy offering rewards or threatening punishments. Cooperation is achieved by a combination of rewards and sanctions against group members who fail to deliver rewards or who are overly punitive.

  • Human Nature is a 21st century description of anthropology, neuroscience, philosophy, sociology and psychology - disciplines that need to be integrated as they are in this book. The topics are essential to understanding human nature, its origins and its problems. You could treat each topic as module of a larger system that develops emergent properties as the modules interact. Each reader discovers the features of human nature in himself or herself and then discovers similar features in others. After you understand more about the dynamics of close relationships, you can look at larger groups. You can continue by applying your insights into human dynamics to governments, countries and international affairs. Other Persona Digital books describe the same dynamics but emphasize different vantage points and concerns.

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    Human Nature
    The Good Person
    Pieces of the Puzzle
    The Sound of Music
    Surviving Human Nature
    Language & Thinking
    I and Thou
    Emotions & Feelings
    Neuroscience Notes
    Human Brain
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    Human Nature is the first volume in the Psychology & Philosophy series, developed by Persona Digital Books. We encourage readers to quote and paraphrase topics published online and expect proper citations to accompany all derivative writings. The author is Stephen Gislason and the publisher is Persona Digital Books. The most recent date of publication is 2016.