27 June 2009

Threat simulation

We'll probably never fully understand why we dream but, in an article suggesting reasons, Jesse Bering describes the 'Threat Simulation Theory':
Originally proposed by Finnish neuroscientist Antti Revonsuo, this clever evolutionary theory holds that dreaming serves a biologically adaptive function because it allowed our ancestors to simulate problem-solving strategies for genuine, waking life threats. Antonio Zadra, Sophie Desjardins, and Eric Marcotte of the University of Montreal neatly summarize the central argument of the theory this way: “By giving rise to a full-scale hallucinatory world of subjective experience during sleep, the dream production mechanism provides an ideal and safe environment for such sustained practice by selecting threatening waking events and simulating them repeatedly in various combinations.” What we should see in contemporary dreams, argues Revonsuo, are “threat scripts” depicting primitive themes of danger that would likely have been relevant in the ancestral environment, such as being chased, falling and so on. Dreaming of Nonsense: The Evolutionary Enigma of Dream Content, 'Scientific American', 25 June
Could the benefits of testing alternative scenarios outweigh the costs, in terms of a brain that's more active than you'd think it needs to be? It's plausible, if unprovable. But it's a fact that whether we are conscious of it or not, much of our individual decision-making relies heavily on trial and error. Real life is messy, in the sense that there often are too many variables and time lags to to relate unequivocally cause and effect.

Unfortunately, in handing our social and environmental problems to large organizations, like governments, we are effectively making the very large assumption that the causes of our problems can be fixed with a minimum of trial and error. That's because large monopolistic organizations just do not do trial and error: they have their own ideas about how to go about things, often dictated by ideology or, more likely these days, by corporate interests and campaign funders, but either way, immune from competition from alternatives. So failed experiments are never terminated, while ordinary people's coping mechanisms are undermined.

All of which is not to say that government shouldn't get involved in solving our social and environmental problems. There are some things that only governments do, and that they can do well. One such is raising the revenue to tackle our problems; the other would be to articulate these problems in the first place. But the efficient achievement of our targeted outcomes requires the sort of trial and error, and the continual selection of only the best method; and that is something that governments are too big, too monolithic and too unmotivated to do. And that's where Social Policy Bonds enter the picture. Under a bond regime trial and error - essential at the societal as well as the individual level - operates automatically to select the most efficient projects and programmes. Failures are swiftly terminated. And this happens because society's targeted goals are exactly the same as those who invest in the bonds who bear the risks of failure while society benefits from their success.

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