Tuesday, February 03, 2015


The Satisfaction with Life Index. 
Blue through red represent most to least happy respectively; grey areas have no reliable data available.

The second of these “domains” that the psych people are trying to think their way through organizing is “Positive Valence Systems.”  There are a number of problems, some of which are listed in the NIHS minutes of discussion and some of which are not really considered.  http://www.nimh.nih.gov/research-priorities/rdoc/development-and-definitions-of-the-rdoc-domains-and-constructs.shtml

Notoriously, it is far more difficult to define mental health positives than negatives, though people since Maslow have been working at it.  “Negative Valence Systems”, the first one tackled by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in terms of reconciling and consolidating it with the new neurology science was easier in part because of decades of research by Joe LeDoux and his colleagues, specifically about fear and anxiety pathways.  Anyway, people who are maladjusted, hurting, or a pain-in-the-butt to others tend to seek out researchers in hope of relief.  Happy people are fine until there is some sweeping change to the world (climate change, political grid lock, economic hardships) that interferes with them.  These forces have been at hand recently.


Here’s what NIMH has so far.  It’s packed with jargon which I’ll try to paraphrase, but remember that I’m not a psych professional and might get their Latinate multisyllabics all wrong.  The acronym they’re using for this project is “RDoC” in case you’re trying to use search engines.

Approach Motivation Systems: 

Rather than asking, as Maslow did, what are the characteristics of a happy and healthy person, this category is more about how people go towards behavior that works in favor of growth and health.  It's a subtle difference.  “This is a multi-faceted Construct involving mechanisms/processes that regulate the direction and maintenance of approach behavior influenced by pre-existing tendencies, learning, memory, stimulus characteristics, and deprivation states.”  So these are the conclusions one’s brain has come to and stored to guide the management of what one does. 

“Approach behavior can be directed toward innate or acquired cues (i.e., unconditioned vs. learned stimuli), implicit or explicit goals; it can consist of goal-directed or Pavlovian conditioned responses.” Below are eight sub-categories, proposed so far.

"Eat your Wheaties, kid!"

Reward valuation. Processes by which the probability and benefits of a prospective outcome are computed and calibrated by reference to external information, social context (e.g., group input, counterfactual comparisons), and/or prior experience. This calibration is influenced by pre-existing biases, learning, memory, stimulus characteristics, and deprivation states. [Whatever makes you think this is a good thing to do.]

Effort valuation/Willingness to work. Processes by which the cost(s) of obtaining an outcome is computed; tendency to overcome response costs to obtain a reinforcer.  [Why get up in the morning? How much effort will you put in?  Will you accept the cost of an education?]

Expectancy/Reward prediction error. A state triggered by exposure to internal or external stimuli, experiences or contexts that predict the possibility of reward. Reward expectation can alter the experience of an outcome and can influence the use of resources (e.g., cognitive resources). [If things get tough, how much frustration can you tolerate?  What if the reward you expect just doesn’t materialize?]

Action selection/Preference-based decision making. Processes involving an evaluation of costs/benefits and occurring in the context of multiple potential choices being available for decision-making. [Making a career choice.  Choosing one of three doors.]

Initial responsiveness to reward attainment: Mechanisms/processes associated with hedonic responses—as reflected in subjective experiences, behavioral responses, and/or engagement of the neural systems to a positive reinforcer—and culmination of reward seeking.  [Why do they insist on using the word “hedonic”? What’s wrong with “pleasure?”  Having said that, we get pleasure from different things that may not be frivolous or obvious.] 


Sustained/Longer-term responsiveness to reward attainment: Mechanisms/processes associated with the termination of reward seeking, e.g., satisfaction, satiation, regulation of consummatory behavior.  [ How much is enough? The opposite of addiction.]

Reward Learning: A process by which organisms acquire information about stimuli, actions, and contexts that predict positive outcomes, and by which behavior is modified when a novel reward occurs or outcomes are better than expected.   [When good things happen and rewards appear, do they register with you?  A lot of people can’t handle good times, praise, or security.  It feels stuck, boring.]

Habit: Sequential, repetitive, motor, or cognitive behaviors elicited by external or internal triggers that, once initiated, can go to completion without constant conscious oversight. Habits can be adaptive by virtue of freeing up cognitive resources.  Related behaviors could be pathological expression of a process that under normal circumstances subserves adaptive goals. [So -- you learned to do something so well that you barely know you are doing it, but now it doesn’t fit the situation.  It's a drag and a drain.  Can you get it up to consciousness and extinguish it?]

I’ll make my own list of comments:

1.  The main thing about positive rewards is distinguishing between those that address simple existence, like food or shelter, and those that are only rewards to some people.  Is opera a reward or a punishment?

"Then I thought: Why not me? I hemmed and hawed. 
I wanted to go, but debated. The cost of BART. Lunch out. 
But mostly it was the word: OPERA."

2.  This group of people doing the thinking has a particular set of experiences and therefore assumptions.  A high-end shrink with a proper couch and high fees is going to see a population that is VERY different from those of a prison chaplain or a Medecins sans Frontieres fighting ebola.  Beyond that, to achieve the level of education that qualifies people to be on these sorts of committees means that they have been socialized to accept a very specific set of beliefs about what to do and how to do it.  The existence of this boundary (frontieres?) means that they are excluding many -- maybe infinite -- points of view and sources of information.

3.  It is surprising that often the neurology structures that light up on fMRI's and so on for negatives are the same ones that light up for positives!  (S/M folks are not surprised.)  It's the SYSTEM.  This is the sort of thing that has to build up considerable credibility before it can have impact on what’s always been accepted as truth.  Organic neurology research has reached that point and the NIMH is forced to take it into account.

4.  Keeping track of the interaction between culture and pleasure is much more difficult because culture is constantly affecting what is success, why it’s success, and the consequences of success, which might be rewarding and punishing at once.  (Consider a top ballerina who is admired but who suffers physically in order to achieve.)  This is complicated again by overlapping cultures which contradict each other, like a ghetto kid whose peers think success in school is a marker of weakness while the kid’s mother is determined that success is only possible through education.  And what if the kid is dyslexic?  

ballerina feet

“Success” beyond simple survival is a slippery concept.  We tend to measure it with money, security, status, authority over others, admiration from those we care about.  What about contributions to society, cultural insight, or simply being virtuous -- except "virtue" takes us back to the same slippery ground as success.  Both are defined by participating in a culture, but cultures are incredibly various and contradictory.  In fact, the “standing order” of mental health systems may try to destroy this RDoC enterprise .  My guess is that there’s enough of a sub-culture -- humanistic, progressive, clinical -- to keep the project alive.  But not easily.  We should support this enormous re-framing.

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