Motivations, Minus Feelings

The invisible mechanism that drives learning and mental change

From Narrow To General AI
7 min readJun 11, 2023

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

Summary of posts 1 to 6: To develop a theory of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), 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. They both result in the formation of concrete memories/thoughts. Another behaviour is re-experiencing concrete experiences (sights and sounds) as thoughts or memories which may, in turn, themselves be remembered as if they were really experienced, thus allowing you to compose thoughts together.

There is a group of mental activities that we have yet to address in this series, partly because they are more difficult to perceive via introspection. These are your motivations.

It is universally recognized that human beings are motivated, and that your desires and dislikes influence nearly all aspects of your mental life. Your personal survival depends on wanting the right things and intentionally avoiding others. Motivations also become a key factor in any notions of morality you may entertain. Even your character or personality can be roughly sketched out as an aggregate of your deepest values, i.e. likes and dislikes.

Unfortunately, unlike memories, which can be observed firsthand in your own mind, it is generally very difficult to observe your own motivations. There are three methods by which you can gain any insight into them, and none of them is inerrant. The first is through what are called feelings, e.g. “I feel hungry”. The second is by certain physiological manifestations of emotional reactions, such as blushing when embarrassed, nervous twitching when anxious, etc. The third is a more indirect method: you notice a pattern in how your thoughts and actions change over time, and deduce an underlying motivation from those. You might, for example, catch yourself constantly having thoughts about a particular person you fancy, or trying to come up with an excuse to get out of a dreaded event. In other words, motives become apparent when they drive your thinking and learning. Indeed, one of the things you may learn is the how to verbally describe your current motivation to others — but this, as noted, must be acquired over time, it does not come naturally.

It’s odd that none of the above are clear and direct windows into your desires; they are all circuitous. As a result you may often make mistakes or be confused about what you are feeling. All this makes the study of motivations more difficult, since you’re trying to determine causes and effects, where one of the variables is not directly visible; all the while your mental landscape is evolving and shifting. So how do you begin?

We hinted at one avenue above, namely that motives not only drive actions and thoughts, but also drive changes in those (i.e. learning). At least some parts of learning can be attributed to the influence of motivations — such as learning to avoid a distasteful person, or learning how to reach a jar of candy as a child. In most cases the moment of change — when you actually learn something — happens invisibly and automatically; you only know about it after the fact.

What about “feelings”? The correlation between motives and feelings seems like a direct one — are we missing an opportunity here? There are a few reasons why feelings are an inefficient way to study motives. First, they are vague, and it is often difficult to articulate what a feeling is really about, or what caused it: e.g. “I’m not sure how I feel about this” you might say. Second, not all motives have feelings associated with them — for example, the desire to tie your shoelaces by yourself may have at one point in childhood been associated with strong feelings, but those are mostly gone. Routine motivations, like finding your phone, or completing a left turn while driving rarely have noticeable feelings. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, even though feelings are a conscious manifestation of underlying motivations, they are not the motivation itself. Motivations are known by their effects — and feelings are one of those effects — but motives are not their effects. Motives, inherently, have no feeling.

This is true even of pain and pleasure. Although these basic motivators powerfully drive actions, feelings, and thoughts of all kinds, the forces themselves are silent; like a cipher. Even the so-called “affect” (subjective feeling) of pain and pleasure, is only how your conscious introspection re-interprets the pain after the fact — it is not “pain” as a motivating factor itself.

In a previous post we discussed how introspection may be misleading. When it comes to motives and feelings, we should be especially careful. You don’t so much have feelings, as become aware of or identify feelings introspectively. So a motive, which is a force that shapes the nature and movements of the mind, would also shape any act of introspectively perceiving or interpreting its own behaviour. As we showed earlier, all introspection is a type of awareness of your mind, and all awareness is a type of learning which changes the mind. Now we’re seeing that much of learning (perhaps all of it) is driven by motives. So it is easy to conclude that the dominant motivation shapes what you perceive (learn) through introspection. Any ineffable feelings you observe in your mind may in fact reflect the underlying motivation shaping your introspective learning. An immediate experience of pain, for instance, may drive the mind to learn certain new thoughts, e.g. that the current experience is “evil”, specifically because these are the most effective thoughts at potentially removing the source of the pain. Different people with different histories will learn a different set of useful thoughts.

This distinction between motives and feelings becomes important once you realize that there is no “you” looking at your feelings as if they were entities in your mind. The word “subjective” as used above can be misleading, since it implies a singular subject as viewer. In truth “you” are just another set of objects, and the events in your mind are the changes in those objects. There is no high ledge from which you can impartially watch all your motives and thoughts; the act of observing is only one part of the system. In later posts we’ll show how the “you” can be dissolved into simpler mechanics — and we’ll do this not by dismissing subjective consciousness as irrelevant, but rather in a way that retains and fully explains all the properties you experience through introspection.

The above description of feelings may still seem inadequate. It may seem wrong to group “feelings” in with thoughts or memories, and other types of cognition, rather than with motivations. Feelings seem like an exception since they, unlike thoughts or memories, are often indescribable. When you say that a feeling is “indescribable” what you mean is that the mind has difficulty usefully converting the events involved in feelings into an act of speaking.

This itself raises a curious question: if you were suddenly able to describe a feeling using language, e.g. by learning a new word for it, would the “indescribable” quality of the feeling — its affect — suddenly disappear? Is that what happens when a motive becomes routine, and therefore loses its feeling? The answer, as we’ll see, is yes. As noted above, motives shape the nature of what you observe, and that includes whether you will interpret a mental event as a feeling or as a concrete linguistic thought. To show how requires explaining how thoughts are formed by motives (next post). Once that’s done we will be one step closer to understanding the subjective feelings that comprise conscious experience.

For the moment, we should exclude from motivations all aspects except the simple idea that they cause changes in the mind; they are otherwise invisible. This approach better accords with the phenomenon we are trying to explain, since people generally only see their motives after the fact— if they see them at all. Historically, the unconscious or invisible nature of motivations has allowed room for positing that a “free will” is the driving force of the psyche; perhaps a better description would have been “unknown will”. On the other hand, when people can’t see how their motives were created or why the mind seems to be driven by them, this can cause a significant amount of distress. Digging into the specific mechanics of how they come about gives us options as to how to direct them.

This post was a short prelude on how to approach the topic of motivations, as a preliminary step to solving some of the riddles introduced in Small Islands of Consciousness. In the next post we’ll dig into the specific mechanisms by which they affect thinking in particular. Ordinarily, people don’t consider thinking as being driven by motives; except perhaps when it comes to goal-oriented planning. The next post will overturn that common perception and explain how knowledge itself is driven by awareness and attention, and how these latter are rooted in motivations.

Next post: Motivated thinking



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.