The Doe Story

I concluded my previous essay with three linked ideas: mental (and some physical) pleasure is the brain’s reward for successful fulfillment of motivation, that this pleasure is pre-verbal, and that I could understand some element of this pleasure by observing a deer.  I see a doe and I have a ray of insight that will illuminate my reward system.  Do-re-mi!  Hey, that was fun.  Aw, quit that and get back to work, I’ve an essay to write.


All life shares a common problem imposed upon us by the power of self-replicating molecules.  For a brief time we accomplish the biding of those molecules and hold off the inevitable ravages of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  We must live and for this we must defy entropy.  To fulfill this mandate we extract energy and raw materials from our environment to build cells that contain those self-replicating molecules and the structures – bodies – which those molecules are able to form.  Organisms possess energy and food detecting, collecting and processing mechanisms or behaviors to solve this problem.  Somewhere, sometime, somehow something astonishing happened.  A cell discovered a short cut: another cell was raw material available for exploitation.  Some of the work of finding and processing energy and raw materials was done by other life forms.  Food, eating, predation, and prey entered the world[1].  Finding food is good, but becoming food is something to be avoided, so most organisms have danger detection mechanisms or behaviors.  Food is good and it is good to not be food.

These organisms or biological structures are temporary.  Entropy can only be defied for a short time.  There are, to the best of our knowledge, no eternal living organisms.  We die.  The burden imposed upon us, beyond that of living, is the necessity of reproducing: transmitting the information required to build those self-replicating molecules and their structures to a successor organism.  All organisms have reproductive mechanisms and behaviors.

We live within a tangled web of interchange between energy and matter.  We sense our internal and external environments and respond to them.  We survive, we reproduce.  Why all this should be we cannot know.  It is a fact of life.

The Doe Story

 I was visiting a friend who lives on the eastern side of the California coastal mountain range.  As we rounded a corner and walked into his house a doe and fawn jumped up out of the tall grass and fled into the tree line.  There they stopped and the doe turned around to watch us.

Her motivation was survival – to escape the danger that we posed to her and her fawn.  Her perception of danger was comprised, at the minimum, of two elements: we were human and thus a danger, and we were too close to her and her fawn.  Her neural system matched her image of us with her stored knowledge of danger.  Boom!  Wham!  Her reaction was immediate: jump up – thus alerting her fawn by the sudden action – and run in the opposite direction to our path.

I am willing to entertain the supposition that our doe, having perceived and escaped danger, may experience some emotion as her alarm system resets to baseline.  Satisfaction, the non-verbal equivalent of “what a good mother I am,” or victory perhaps.  There are stories that some prey species will, after escaping, turn to taunt their exhausted predator “you can’t catch me, nyaa, nyaa, ya, na, nyahh.”   There is no reason to assume that our emotional system is so very much different from the doe’s and that she does not and could not have some similar feeling.

The doe experienced mental pleasure at fulfilling her motivation.

No words required.

Anthropomorphizing – imputing human emotions to animals – was, in my brief student days, a major intellectual sin.  Animals were just a bundle of instincts, and if a laboratory animal, of training.  Evolutionary biology and psychology has allowed us, nay forced us, to recognize our common genetics, morphology, physiology, chemistry, and behaviors with the entire spectrum of life.  Our abilities, while unusual, are adaptations of or additions to abilities common to other species.  It now becomes possible to impute animal abilities and motivations to humans – animalizing human behavior and emotions – understanding H. sapiens within the context of primate, mammalian, vertebrate modi vivendi.  I have a mental reward system, she has a mental award system, and other animals above some minimal neural complexity will have one.  Commonality, continuity with change.  H. sapiens may be sui generis (and less than commonly assumed) but we are not de novo.

If, in the context of the 1960’s I have sinned by anthropomorphizing, I am utterly heretical in animalizing human emotion, thought and behavior.  To understand human emotions and thinking I must begin with animal emotions, thinking, and motivations.  I need to ask “how do they make their living, what are their survival rules, how do their brains – their sensory and processing systems – control their physiology and their physical behavior?  I found pleasure in the mind of the doe as she fulfilled her motivation – in this case to perceive and escape danger.    We share the mental and physical reward of escaping danger.  It is the commonality of the brain’s reward system that is of principle interest.

Upon writing the word ‘commonality’ in the previous sentence I realized that a mental reward is common to the successful fulfillment of motivation from having fun to mastery of a skill, from a simple pun to a good golf drive, from acquisition of food and other resources to a mate, from fixing something broken to creating a new idea, from asserting dominance to lolling in the sunshine.

The previous sentence gives rise to the idea that my mind operates with a variety of motivations that may be in operation at the same time, may not be consistent and may be in conflict, and may not be conscious.  Motivations may have different intensities that may change over time.  One may trigger or inhibit another.  Out of this my neural system creates thought and behavior using existing pathways and knowledge.  Somewhere in this web is the capacity for new behavior and thought although I have not yet discerned its operation.[2]

I return to the doe for some ideas on motivation.  She was lying in the grass with her fawn.  From that I know that she was probably ruminating, gastrically and mentally.  She had fulfilled her motivation for food by grazing and was quietly processing that chow.[3]  But in the background her brain is also scanning the environment for danger.  She and the fawn are prey and eternal vigilance is the price of living to eat another meal and beget another fawn.  Her needs and motivations to fulfill these needs must something like this, in no particular order:[4]

Food and rumination

Protection of her fawn

Rest and relaxation

Monitoring the environment for danger

This is a partial list of a complex web of concurrent needs and motivations.  I would summarize her mental state as “mindfulness:” intense awareness of the taste of her food, of the nearness of her fawn, and of the warmth of the sun, and underlying that an unconscious perception of sight and sound.

When we rounded the corner of the house and came into her view we upended the operative order of her motivations.  We were too close; she and her fawn were in danger.  Calm mindfulness vanished and was replaced with fright.  She had no doubt.  She fled with her fawn.  She was certain that we posed a danger.  That instantaneous apprehension of danger was her truth at the moment.

Why did I italicize ‘certain’ in the penultimate sentence of the previous paragraph?  What was my motivation for selecting and emphasizing that word?  What is the connection between danger, certainty, and truth?  Or better said, why did I place those words in the same paragraph?  With that question I have arrived at another major theme for my essays, how is it that my mind finds TRUTH in words?

The first major theme is “The Origin of Labor at the Dawn of Civilization.”  The second is the continuity of our minds with other animals which is overlain with our exceptional mental abilities.  The third is some minds possess truth to some degree from absolute certainty to “that’s a pretty good idea.”  Like the doe in the sunshine, let me ruminate upon these themes:

I’ve been thinking about the brain’s reward system.  About how the words in my mind arrive with some surprise, delight, happiness, pleasure and value.  They are true!  They are ipso facto good and true ideas because they came out of my mind.  It is difficult to deny the children of my mind.  They are my truth.  I write them down.

The brain has a reward system and it also has a punishment system: “why the hell did I do that!?” with fear, shame and guilt as its motivations for changing thought and consequent behavior.  In both of these systems, reward and punishment, there are neural feedback mechanisms that either reinforce or modify behavior by releasing neuro-chemicals that are new (and secondary) motivations – the offspring of my primary motivations.  That is, those chemicals motivate me to repeat rewarded thoughts and behavior and avoid punished behavior and thoughts.

What is the connection between that reward for words in my mind and the doe in the dirt that has no words in her mind?  What is the connection between these delights – that reward in her brain – and the truth in mine?  What was my motivation for linking these disparate observations?  I anthropomorphized her mental state by suggesting that she would experience mental satisfaction in escaping from the danger we posed and that escape from danger required certainty.  I animalized my mental state by suggesting that certitude and truth in my mind have some resemblance to certainty of decision in hers.

Whence the power of words?   Why would the evanescent vaporings of my overheated mind carry the emotional freight of truth?”

I left those four paragraphs unedited because I liked them.  They are curiosity and play in action.  I began this essay with a word play and I finished by playing with words.

So many questions, so little time!  In the next essay I will look at motivation again:

My mind thinks, but not in words, for some purpose: its motivation.

[1] Later cooperation and communication also entered the world.  That is a story for another time.

[2] That I do not understand new ideas and behaviors – creativity – is a bit of a problem because civilization and the sociology and psychology that it requires is de novo and I will spend a lot of time examining the consequences of that.

[3] She grazes while standing; she ruminates while lying.

[4] As the MC said on a TV show years ago.