The Difficult Third Path

How new motivations can be derived from old ones

From Narrow To General AI
10 min readJun 21, 2023

This is the tenth entry in a series on AGI. See previous post here. See a list of all posts here.

Summary of posts 1 to 9: A theory of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) must begin by focusing on invisible, automatic mental behaviours that drive higher-level, complex ones. One such behaviour is “becoming aware of something”, either something external or within one’s own mind. This results in the formation of concrete memories/thoughts (sights and sounds) which can later be re-experienced as needed. You became aware of this because it was a solution to a problem. It was driven by a negative impulse, which we call a “tension”.

The more difficult path.

In the previous post we discussed how motivations push the mind to learn. We described something we called a “tension”: the negative aspect or driving force behind motivated thinking and actions. The positive or satiating side we called a “solution”. There were a host of unanswered questions about both. This post will focus only on tensions. What are they?

When you think of “bad” experiences, there are some that pop up as immediately obvious. Pain and hunger are two of them. Tiredness, thirst, restlessness, sexual dissatisfaction, are others. These are obvious because they are uncontroversial — (nearly) everyone is born able to experience them. Each has its solution too: hunger has satiation (eating); tiredness has resting or sleeping, etc.

In addition to these natural tensions, there are many that seem to be acquired over time, and that children aren’t born with. They include people being rude or insulting you, failing a test, being bored, not getting an object you want, being ignored, not understanding a subject, things not going as planned, and so on¹.

These tensions may be nuanced and unique to the person. More socially sensitive people will feel ill at ease about small perceived slights; they have tensions others don’t have. Ethically-minded people feel pangs of guilt in cases where others simply glide by, oblivious. Individual personalities and even skills are largely dependent on what a person does and doesn’t consider a problem (or a solution). These can be quite specific too. The tensions listed above are common enough that we have names for them. We don’t have a name for, say, when the particular swing you like the most at the playground is being used by another child.

Given the nuanced and personal nature of tensions, it seems likely they are acquired through personal experiences. But it’s hard to pinpoint how, when, and why you acquire them. It may take time for you to realize, through introspection, that a tension has been influencing your actions; at which point the revelation may surprise you². Their formation appears to go unnoticed. What we are looking for, then, is some unconscious rule by which the mind automatically associates a set of inputs with an internal tension.

One possibility is that tensions are learned gradually over time, through a host of bad experiences. However, a single bad experience may also be enough for you to learn to dislike something, such as fire or a sharp object. Your very survival may depend on learning this quickly. So the minimum number appears to be one. As for the trigger itself, this would only be the specific sight or sound present at the time, it need not be an “object” (such as all knives) in the abstract sense of the term. Forming a concept of an object, e.g. from all sides, takes many experiences and is never finished. So tensions, at least initially are triggered by a basic visual-auditory similarity between past and present sensations. A child can learn to attach a tension to the face and voice of a parent yelling at them without also generalizing that to apply to a view from above the parent’s head.

From the above, it seems that anytime a tension is elicited, there are two possibilities: the mind either solves the problem, or creates a new tension. But what makes the difference between the two? Why does the mind sometimes switch from problem-solving to problem-defining?

Some tensions, like dirty laundry, have simple solutions — do the laundry. Learning to do the right actions is enough to deal with them. Other situations seem, at least at the time, to offer no easy solution, perhaps no solution at all. These tend to be dreadful. Being put in prison may be an example; it’s not as though you can do the equivalent of laundry and leave. It is “inescapable”. Situations like social humiliation, losing a job, the death of a loved one, etc, similarly offer no easy solution. The thought of these causes its own tension.

When your mind encounters an “inescapable” or “unsolvable” problem, the only useful thing to learn is to avoid even getting into or approaching a situation where the inescapable tension would be present. For example, if you are afraid of dying in a plane crash (inescapable once you are on a plane and encounter a failure), you may end up being anxious about getting on a plane, because the latter may cause you to be stuck on a plane. In order to preempt the inescapable situation, the tension is moved one step back in the chain of causes³, back to a situation when it was still possible to avoid it.

I mentioned the word “afraid”, and we’ll discuss how fear is caused by tensions without solutions in another post. There is a transitional ground between problem solving and fear which gives us a clue about the specific mechanics involved in creating a new tension is: namely anxiety. Anxiety is an odd emotion, since despite its persistence, it doesn’t seem to move the mind forward, or cause any positive change or growth.

Here’s how a typical case of anxiety might proceed. First, you imagine something that causes a tension. For example, you are up for promotion, and imagine not getting it. As yet you don’t know what the outcome will be. You may subsequently comfort yourself by imagining that the outcome will be something good. Or perhaps you might try to push the tension away by thinking “I can’t know until the facts are in”. Either serves to remove the thought that causes the tension for now — it “solves” it in your mind. But soon you think about how you really want that promotion, and the intrusive tension of not getting it appears again, seeking a solution anew. You alternate between tension and solution; an upsetting thought and a band-aid thought. This alternation is called anxiety. The only thing that will end the cycle of anxiety is a conclusive answer either way.

Your natural reaction may be to suppress or put aside this anxiety by “thinking good thoughts”. It is ironic then that, as seen in the above pattern, the act of imagining a solution is part of the anxiety cycle. The underlying tension has not been truly resolved, so a fantasized resolution can only work for a limited time. When it doesn’t stick, and the tension reappears, you tend to blame yourself for losing this inner battle.

How can you end this anxious back-and-forth? We hinted at a solution above, when we said that only a conclusive answer would end the cycle. The anxiety is showing up because your mind can’t break the cycle. Since there seems to be a temporary solution (the imagined one), there is no automatic trigger indicating that none of the solutions really work. This is one downside of imagination: you can fool your mind into registering a solution which is unreal. There is still hope; the problem hasn’t registered as “inescapable”. So your mind is stuck in limbo, unable to settle on one side or the other.

There is a third, as yet unknown path, your mind simply doesn’t have available to it. What if you didn’t get the promotion, but found a way to make that work? Or perhaps there were things you could do to ensure that promotion instead of waiting. These options are not available because they are solutions to an as yet unrecognized problem; and you can only discover solutions to tensions you currently have.

It is difficult to explain this pattern in the abstract, so let’s make it concrete. Imagine that you don’t get the promotion. You will feel upset. The next time the same opportunity comes up, you will find yourself in the same anxious cycle; nothing significant will have changed. Now imagine instead that you were turned down for the promotion over thirty consecutive occasions, over and over. The experience has now become routine. You grow to accept that this is just the way things go. In this scenario, would you then feel anxious about the next round of promotions? Of course not. Why? Something has “shifted” in your mind between the first situation and this new one. You no longer experience the nervous alternations, they have been replaced by a steady-state feeling, a kind of grim acceptance.

Notably, when you are next up for promotion, you would no longer have the high hopes and imagine that something good may come about. So the cycle of anxiety has no chance to start. The thought of being up for promotion is itself now a signal of a negative experience, because you recognize that you will not get the role through this path (even though you still may). Failure is now “inescapable”. This is a new problem, and it will cause you to start to consider new options. Perhaps you look for work elsewhere; perhaps you try to influence other managers in roundabout ways. You would not have considered these avenues if you hadn’t registered the new tension. You have grown as a person. And this change can’t be undone; there’s no going back.

How can we explain what happened mechanically? Simply put, you cut off the solution half of the cycle (hope). Your mind then had no choice but to experience the tension and nothing else. Instead of “I may not get the role” (problem) being papered over by “perhaps I’ll get it anyway”, you think “I may not get the role”, then immediately “I wont get it”. The latter is a restatement of the original tension in a slightly different way⁴. When a tension repeats, with no intervening solution, a new tension forms. This makes sense when you consider what “inescapable” means — that no matter what you do, you still continue to experience the tension. There is even a window of time during which such a repetition must occur, namely before the tension is forgotten or resolved; this averages around 1–5 seconds.

Another observation from the above example is that being passed over for promotion is something you have learned to dislike, rather than the tension being innate. This means that learned tensions can also create their own child tensions. And there doesn’t seem to be any end to this chain. Since tensions, according to this model are either on or off, they don’t become “weaker” the further they are from innate tensions like pain. As long as the ingredients are present the mind will create new tensions. And there appear to be no exceptions to this pattern. No tension is too grand, no problem too serious that it does not adhere to it. Your most despairing life events, deepest existential ordeals, toughest physical travails, and even mundane quotidian tasks all, without fail, abide by the same pattern.

In the very first post we mentioned that a theory of AGI would be significantly more valuable if it helped individuals address the question of how to understand and control their own minds. Of all possible mental events to try to understand, misplaced motivations causes people the most distress. On the other hand useful motivations can provide the greatest advantages. Learning tensions is one of two integral parts of what we’ll call “personal growth”; the other is learning solutions.

Harnessing this potential implies deliberately reshaping your tensions. This involves intentionally skipping over unproductive, naive cycles of anxiety, directly to creating a new tension that puts an end to the cycle. At first you might feel uneasy about doing so, since intentionally defining the current, anxious situation as “inescapable” feels pessimistic and dispiriting, and dreadful unless you feel confident you will be able to find a solution to the new tension. In such moments it is worth recalling all the “dreadful’ things of childhood, such as speaking to a stranger, tying your shoelaces, or going to your first job. These have now, on being accepted as the norm, become mundane, and indeed a source of personal maturity and power. To refuse to accept them would mean to remained beholden to an immature, anxious state⁵. Conversely, by taking charge of and accelerating this process, brick by brick, a new edifice of mature tensions is built up. Soon, you find the very nature of your mental reality has changed.

This post has been a whirlwind tour of how new internal tensions are created from old ones. There are still many unanswered questions remaining. For one, we have only discussed how you associate tensions with specific sights and sounds that were present at the time. But tensions also seem to act from abstract concepts, e.g. “not getting a job”, where “job” and “get” are generalities. That discussion will have to wait until we deal with how concepts themselves act in and move the mind. The next post will instead address the other half of this cycle, namely how solutions are formed.

Next post: Abstract Concepts and Problem Solving

¹ That many of these are phrased as negations of something positive is a linguistic artifact; our language more often frames things in terms of what we want than what we dislike.

² Much of psychotherapy is centred around this discovery.

³ “Cause” is used here naively to mean experiences that tend to precede others in time. No presumption of true causation need be made at this point.

⁴ There are mechanical reasons why it must be restated in a slightly different way, but those are to complex to go into here.

⁵ The similarity to Joseph Campbell’s work is apparent here.



From Narrow To General AI

The road from Narrow AI to AGI presents both technical and philosophical challenges. This blog explores novel approaches and addresses longstanding questions.