Anxiety and Well-Being

(This is the twelfth part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series.)

52: The Dark Room

Recall that Part 4 (‘Rules, Hierarchy and Prediction’) considered the merits of ‘rule utilitarianism’ and ‘act utilitarianism’ and proposed a mixture of the two in which the fast lower levels of crude (‘rule-utilitarianism’) predictions would be followed first but possibly get over-ridden by the slower higher levels of more refined (act-utilitarianism) predictions. An analogy was made between this and Karl Friston’s ‘Variational Free Energy’ model of the brain as a hierarchy of predictors. In this model, the continuous competition between the levels in the hierarchy is resolved by the ‘minimization of surprise through action and prediction’.

Prairie voles

One criticism of Friston’s theory is that, in order to minimize surprise, an agent need only find a small dark space to hide in. This is the so-called ‘Dark Room’ problem. The response to this is that this hiding does not work in the long-term. The agent must come out of its safe haven to actively explore the local environment in order to learn about it so as to be able to predict where food will be, and then actually find food for survival. Immediately previously, we considered creatures that behave in such a fashion – the prairie voles that find safe haven in their burrows.

53: Anxiety

The ‘minimization of surprise through action and prediction’ that defines what the brain is doing is a continuous process. Outside of the burrow, the prairie vole will be highly anxious, constantly fearful of predators, predicting possible misfortunes and acting to mitigate them accordingly. The lowest levels of the hierarchy are primed for fast reactions. Back in the relative safety of the burrow, anxiety is less but the ‘minimization of surprise through action and prediction’ continues. The slower, higher levels in the hierarchy will dominate, allowing longer-term imaginings to determine action. So the ‘natural’ state for animals is to be continually predicting (imagining) possible bad scenarios and asking ‘what will I do if this happens?’ It is a life of continual ‘living in the future’. Put another way, life is continual worrying. This ‘constant worrying’ attitude to risk is obviously going to be more successful evolutionarily than a more relaxed one. In the animal kingdom, neuroticism is normal.

54: Distress, Eustress and Well-Being 

But unrelenting worry is not a good strategy for survival. Anxiety is caused by circumstances (threats) that prime the body for a ‘fight or flight’ response, e.g. increased heart rate and a ‘rush of blood to the head’ (although the female will tend to be less aggressive and more conciliatory – ‘tend and befriend’). This is managed by the sympathetic part of the Autonomic Nervous System (automatic, unconscious, low-level) which regulates the body’s various organs. The agent cannot stay in this heightened state for a long time. When the threat has subsided, the parasympathetic part of the Autonomic Nervous System will (homeostatically) steer the body back to a ‘rest and digest’ / ‘feed and breed’ state. Otherwise, prolonged anxiety will:

  • increase the risk of failure of the stressed organs (e.g. a heart attack), and
  • produce consequences resulting from the neglected aspects of the parasympatheticside of things (e.g. increased risk of infection because of the reduced immune system).

In theoretical terms, a ‘stress’ is a challenge to the agent that demands action in order for the agent to maintain homeostasis. In simpler, starker terms, it is a threat to its life. Hans Selye differentiated between:

  • ‘Distress’: the persistent stress that damages the agent’s Autonomic Nervous System, and
  • ‘Eustress’ (‘good stress’): the short-term mild stress that exercises the agent’s Autonomic Nervous System.

Contrasting the two:

  • Distress reduces the fitness of the agent; it reduces the range of states over which it can maintain homeostasis, whereas
  • Eustress increases the fitness of the agent; it increases the range of states over which it can maintain homeostasis. (Short-term stress that does not risk life can help protect and prepare the agent for times of stress that are life-threatening.)

An agent has a sense of ‘well-being’ when in the ‘rest and digest’ / ‘feed and breed’ states. This is particularly true after eustress:

  • The joy in response to an external stress.
  • The exhilaration felt after rising to a challenge.

The young can learn to deal with dangers through experiencing eustress within the relatively-safe local environment. Meanwhile, their parent(s) will be vigilant for real dangers.

55: Oxytocin and Well-Being

Immediately previously, I looked at the effects of Oxytocin. Summarizing these:

  1. It assists in birth, child rearing and mate attachment. In a very basic way, it therefore promotes a social (rather than solitary) environment – a family.
  2. When the agent is in the company of those it is familiar with, Oxytocin reduces anxiety and stress and increases contentment, calmness and security.
  3. It improves ‘social intelligence’.
  4. It increases empathy.

Social Intelligence Regarding the improvement in ‘social intelligence’:

  • Because of the long period of learning in close contact, there is a significant ability to predict the intentions of familiar agents – and discover that these intentions are typically cooperative.
  • Because of the short period of learning in close contact, there is a poor ability to predict the intentions of unfamiliar agents and thus ‘fight of flight’ behaviour still dominates.

The behaviour learnt from those around us is then extended to those that look like those around us. So it helps to improve cooperation within the in-group, and it helps to extend that in-group to a wider membership. Empathy Oxytocin’s effect of increasing empathy relates back to its improvement of ‘social intelligence’ because ‘social intelligence’ is just one of the components required for an agent to be able to empathize with another:

  • The agent must have ‘social intelligence’, that being the ability to infer hidden states in others from their directly-observable behaviour, in order to estimate their intentions. The ability to infer hidden states in the environment is what the brain is doing according to the ‘variational free energy’ theory.
  • The agent must then be able to associate that state with a memory of its own state,
  • The agent must then associate a memory of its own state with a memory of its own feeling, and
  • The agent must then be able to project that feeling back onto the subject.

Anxiety Inferring the hidden states within other agents is a particularly difficult problem. A better ability to infer hidden states results in better prediction of behaviour in the environment. This learnt improvement in prediction means that there are less ‘false alarms’ within the safe local environment: The behaviour of an in-group member is recognised as non-threatening whereas similar behaviour by an out-group member would not be. The agent need not get stressed by the presence of the others that are within its in-group within its safe haven (burrow). It can relax more, improving its well-being. Because of Oxytocin’s association with the mechanics of mothering, it is often branded ‘the love hormone’, but this can lead us to overstate the direct effects of oxytocin on caring. Indirectly, the effect of improving social intelligence can have the same effect; social intelligence, empathy and anxiety are all inter-related. Regarding its neurological effects, it can be better to consider Oxytocin as amplifying an individual’s social skills and their emotions of a social nature.

56: Overcoming Anxiety

Utilitarianism is traditionally defined as the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’. But happiness is too strong a term. If life is characterized by continual worrying, it would be better to speak in less hedonistic terms of maximizing well-being, which is to say (referring back to the positive effects of oxytocin):

  • minimizing anxiety and stress, and
  • maximizing contentment, calmness and security.

Well-being is associated with ‘living in the now’. Many modern cultures have been extremely successful in:

  • Overcoming immediate environmental factors in order to (generally) provide us with easily-accessible food, water and clothing, and
  • Giving us a good deal of trust in others around us (more on trust later on) that we believe they are acting with us (‘acting downwards’) rather than against us (‘acting upwards’).

Consequently, feelings of well-being can dominate over constant fear and anxiety. Well-being is a luxury for the fortunate in life. Neuroticism is no longer normal. This benign environment allows us to be complacent and indulgent – doing what we want (enjoying ourselves) rather than what is good for us, which is to maintain long-term (inter-generational) homeostasis:

  1. for individuals within society,
  2. in a society where individuals generally trust one another, and
  3. in an environment that can sustain that society.

Animals are ‘naturally’ anxious. It is only animals that exist in benign environments have the luxury of well-being. Morality is about improving well-being, hence morality is only for those in benign environments. (If the culture collapses, points 2 and/or 3 may no longer hold. All bets are off.)

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3 Responses to Anxiety and Well-Being

  1. Pingback: Empathy | Headbirths

  2. Pingback: Mirroring and Mimicry | Headbirths

  3. Pingback: Guilt and Shame | Headbirths

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