From self to craving (three characteristics series)

Buddhists talk a lot about the self, and also about suffering. They claim that if you come to investigate what the self is really made of, then this will lead to a reduction in suffering. Why would that be?

This post seeks to answer that question. First, let’s recap a few things that we have been talking about before.

The connection between self and craving

In “a non-mystical explanation of ‘no-self’”, I talked about the way in which there are two kinds of goals. First, we can manipulate something that does not require a representation of ourselves. For example, we can figure out how to get a truck on a column of blocks.

In that case, we can figure out a sequence of actions that takes the truck from its initial state to its target state. We don’t necessarily need to think about ourselves as we are figuring this out—the actual sequence could just as well be carried out by someone else.

I mentioned that these kinds of tasks seem to allow flow states, in which the sense of self becomes temporarily suspended as unnecessary, and which are typically experienced as highly enjoyable and free from discomfort.

Alternatively, we can think of a goal which intrinsically requires self-reference. For example, I might be feeling sad, and think that I want to feel happy instead. In this case, both the initial state and the target state are defined in terms of what I feel, so in order to measure my progress, I need to track a reference to myself.

In that post, I remarked that changing one’s experience of one’s self may change how emotions are experienced. This does not necessarily require high levels of enlightenment: it is a common mindfulness practice to reframe your emotions as something that is external to you, in which case negative emotions might cease to feel aversive.

I have also previously discussed therapy techniques that allow you to create some distance between yourself and your feelings, making them less aversive. For example, one may pay attention to where in their body they feel an emotion, keep their attention on those physical feelings, and then allow a visual image of that emotion to arise. This may then cause the emotion to be experienced as “not me”, in a way which makes it easier to deal with.

The next post in my series was on craving and suffering, where I distinguished two different kinds of motivation: craving and non-craving. I claimed that craving is intrinsically associated with the desire to either experience positive valence, or to avoid experiencing negative valence. Non-craving-based motivation, on the other hand, can care about anything; not just valence.

In particular, I claimed that discomfort /​ suffering (unsatisfactoriness, to use a generic term) is created by craving: craving attempts to resist reality, and in so doing generates an error signal which is subjectively experienced as unsatisfactoriness. I also suggested that non-craving-based motivation does not resist reality in the same way, so does not create unsatisfactoriness.

Putting some of these pieces together:

  • Craving tries to ensure that “the self” experiences positive feelings and avoids negative feelings.

  • If there are consciously experienced feelings which are not interpreted as being experienced by the self, it does not trigger craving.

  • There is a two-way connection between the sense of self and craving.

    • On one hand, experiencing a strong sense of self triggers craving, as feelings are interpreted as happening to the self.

    • From the other direction, once craving is triggered, it sends into consciousness the goal of either avoiding or experiencing particular feelings. As this goal is one that requires making reference to the self, sending it into consciousness instantiates a sense of self.

Let’s look at this a bit more.

Craving as a second layer of motivation

A basic model is that the brain has subsystems which optimize for different kinds of goals, and then produce positive or negative valence in proportion to how well those goals are being achieved.

For example, appraisal theories of emotion hold that emotional responses (with their underlying positive or negative valence) are the result of subconscious evaluations about the significance of a situation, relative to the person’s goals. An evaluation saying that you have lost something important to you, for example, may trigger the emotion of sadness with its associated negative valence.

Or consider a situation where you are successfully carrying out some physical activity; playing a fast-paced sport or video game, for example. This is likely to be associated with positive valence, which emerges from having success at the task. On the other hand, if you were failing to keep up and couldn’t get into a good flow, you would likely experience negative valence.

Valence looks like a signal about whether some goals/​values are being successfully attained. A subsystem may have a goal X which it pursues independently, and depending on how well it goes, valence is produced as a result. In this model, because valence tends to signal states that are good/​bad for the achievement of an organism’s goals, craving acts as an additional layer that “grabs onto” states that seem to be particularly good/​bad, and tries to direct the organism more strongly towards those.

There’s a subtlety here, in that craving is distinct from negative valence, but craving can certainly produce negative valence. For example:

  • You are feeling stressed out, so you go for a long walk. This helps take your mind off the stress, and you come back relaxed.

  • The next time you are stressed and feel like you need a break, you remember that the walk helped you before. It’s important for you to get some more work done today, so you take another walk in the hopes of calming down again. As you do, you keep thinking “okay, am I about to calm down and forget my worries now”—and this question keeps occupying you throughout your walk, so that when you get back home, you haven’t actually relaxed at all.

I think this has to do with craving influencing the goals and inputs that are fed into various subsystems. If craving generates the goal of “I should relax”, then that goal is taken up by some planning subsystem; and success or failure at that goal, may by itself produce positive or negative valence just like any other goal does. This also means that craving may generate emotions that generate additional craving: first you have a craving to relax on a walk, but then going on the walk produces frustration, creating craving to be rid of the frustration...

My model about craving and non-craving seems somewhat similar to the proposed distinction between model-based and model-free goal systems in the brain. The model-based system does complex reasoning about what to do; it is capable of pretty sophisticated analyses, but requires substantial computational resources. To save on computation, the model-free system remembers which actions have led to good or bad outcomes in the past, and tries to repeat/​avoid them. Under this model, craving would be associated with something like the model-free system, one which used “did an action produce positive or negative valence” as a shorthand for whether actions should be taken or avoided.

However, it would be a mistake to view these as two entirely distinct systems. Research suggests that even within the same task, both kinds of systems are active, with the brain adaptively learning which one of the systems to deploy during which parts of the activity. Craving valence and more complex model-based reasoning also seem to be intertwined in various ways, such as:

  • It is possible to unlearn particular cravings, as the brain updates to notice that this specific craving is not actually useful. The unlearning process seems to involve some degree of model-based evaluation, as the brain seems resistant to release cravings if it predicts that doing so would make it harder to achieve some particular goal.

  • Model-based subsystems may act in ways that seem to make use of craving. For example, in an earlier post reviewing the book Unlocking the Emotional Brain, I discussed the example of Richard. A subsystem in his brain predicted that if he were to express confidence, people would dislike him, so it projected negative self-talk into his consciousness to prevent him from being confident. Presumably the self-talk had negative valence and caused a craving to avoid it, in a way which contributed to him not saying anything. I suspect that this is part of why mindfulness practice may release buried trauma: if you get better at dealing with mild aversion, that aversion might previously have been used by subsystems to keep negative memories contained—and then your mind gets flooded with really unpleasant memories, and much stronger unsatisfactoriness than you were necessarily prepared to deal with.

It is also worth making explicit that pursuing positive valence and avoiding negative valence are goals that can be pursued by non-craving-based subsystems as well.

For basically any goal, there can be craving-based and non-craving-based motivations. You might pursue pleasure because of a craving for pleasure, but you may also pursue it because you value it for its own sake, because experiencing pleasure makes your mind and body work better than if you were only experiencing unhappiness, because it is useful for releasing craving… or for any other reason.

From self to craving and from craving to self

I have mostly been talking about craving in terms of aversion (craving to avoid a negative experience). Let’s look at some examples of craving a positive experience instead:

  • It is morning and your alarm bell rings. You should get up, but it feels nice to be sleepy and remain in bed. You want to hang onto those pleasant sensations of sleepiness for a little bit more.

  • You are spending an evening together with a loved one. This is the last occasion that you will see each other in a long time. You feel really good being with them, but a small part of you is unhappy over the fact that this evening will eventually end.

  • You are at work on a Friday afternoon. Your mind wanders to the thought of no longer being at work, and doing the things you had planned for the weekend. You would prefer to be done with work already, and find it hard to stay focused as you cling to the thoughts of your free time.

  • You are single and hanging out with an attractive person. You know that they are not into you, but it would be so great if they were. You can’t stop thinking about that possibility, and this keeps distracting you from the actual conversation.

  • You are in a conversation with several other people. You think of a line that would be a great response to what someone else just said. Before you can say it, somebody says something, and the conversation moves on. You find yourself still thinking of your line, and how nice it would have been to get to say it.

  • You had been planning on going to a famous museum while on your vacation, but the museum turns out to be temporarily closed at the time. You keep thinking about how much you had been looking forward to it.

  • You are hungry, and keep thinking about how good a particular food would taste, and how much better you would feel after you had eaten.

These circumstances are all quite different, but on a certain abstract level, they share the same kind of a mechanism. There is the thought of something pleasant, which triggers craving, and a desire to either get into that pleasant state or make sure you remain in it.

Let’s say that there is this kind of a process:

Sense contact. You have some particular experience, such as the sensation of being sleepy and in bed, or the thought of how it would feel if the attractive person in front of you were to like you. In third-person terms, this sensation/​thought is sent to the global workspace of your consciousness.

Valence. An emotional system classifies this experience as being positive, and paints it with a corresponding positive gloss as it is being broadcast into the workspace.

Craving. A craving subsystem notices the positive valence, and interprets the valence as being experienced by you. The subsystem registers the imagined state the valence is associated with, so it sets the intention of getting the self to achieve that state, and the resulting positive valence. For example, it may set the intention of getting into a relationship with that attractive person.

Clinging and planning. This intent clings in your mind and is fed to planning subsystems. They make plans of how to get to the state which has been evaluated as being better. (My previous post was largely a description of this stage.)

Birth. As these plans are broadcast into consciousness for evaluation, they contain a representation of your current state, creating a stronger experience of having a distinct self that wants a particular thing. Subsystems may emphasize particular aspects of their model of you that seem relevant for achieving the goal: for example, if the other person seems to be drawn towards musicians, your skill at this may become highlighted. Maybe you, being a musical kind of person, could play the guitar and make a good impression on them… emphasizing your “musician nature” in the self-representation that appears in consciousness.

Death. Eventually, you stop pursuing the goal, at least for the time being. Maybe you get what you wanted, it turns out to be unviable right now, or you just get distracted and forget. This particular goal-state and plan disappear from consciousness, and with it, the sense of self that was tracking its completion disappears as well. Before long—or maybe even simultaneously—another self will be created, one which cares about something completely different: maybe you got hungry, and now the craving only cares about getting some food, creating a food-hungry self...

Craving and the self-model

There’s a straightforward reason for why craving should be tied into a conception of the self: its purpose is to motivate you to action. If your brain predicts that someone other than you would experience positive valence, this does not trigger craving in the same way. (Imagine getting the one thing that you most desire at the moment. Then imagine some complete stranger getting a similar thing. Not quite the same, is it?)

Your craving subsystems have been wired to make you experience positive valence /​ avoid negative valence. Each craving subsystem contains an implicit schema along the lines of “I will strive towards a more positive experience, and then I will have that more positive experience in the end”. If a craving subsystem predicted that its actions would produce someone else a more positive experience, this would not fulfill the goal condition in that schema. (Of course, craving may have the instrumental goal of making someone else happy, if it predicts that leads to a positive consequence for you.)

At the same time, there is something interesting going on with the fact that mindfulness and cognitive defusion practices work: if you can mentally transform a source of negative valence into something that feels external to you, it may not bother you as much. In particular, it feels like you don’t need to react to it: that is, there is less of a craving to get it out of your consciousness. The inference of “if I get this emotion out of my mind, I will feel better” is never applied, as the emotion is not experienced as being “in my mind” in the first place.

In other words, the mere experience or prediction of positive/​negative valence alone does not seem to be enough to trigger craving. The valence also needs to be bound into a particular abstract representation of the self, and interpreted as happening to “you”.

At this point, we need to distinguish between two different senses of “happening to you”:

  • Happening to the system defined by the physical boundaries of your body; for conscious experiences, appearing in the global workspace located within that body. I will call this “happening to the system”.

  • Happening to “the self”, an abstract tag which is computed within the system, and which feels like the entity that internal experiences such as emotions happen to; typically only includes part of the content in the global workspace. I will call this “happening to the self-model”.

Craving reacts to valence that is experienced by the self-model. It may seem to also react to events that happen to the system, such as getting to sleep for longer, but this always takes place through something that bottoms out at the self-model experiencing valence. E.g. the thought of sleeping longer creates positive valence, and the craving reacts to the positive valence becoming incorporated in the self-model. (At the same time, the predictions that craving is based on are not necessarily accurate or up to date, so there is also craving for things that we do not actually enjoy.)

At the same time, non-craving-based motivation may react to anything, including events that happen to the system rather than the self-model. Even if the thought of getting to sleep for longer didn’t cause craving, you could still stay in bed in order to get more rest. Because this involves some degree of abstract reasoning, craving is probably something that humans need to have in place before non-craving-based systems have had a chance to mature and acquire sophisticated models. A toddler is not capable of intellectually figuring out the consequences of most harmful things and how they should thus be avoided, but the toddler does still have visceral craving to avoid pain.

Earlier in this series, I mentioned a metaphor of experiencing yourself as the sky, and all the emotions and thoughts as things that are on the sky but which do not affect the sky. This was intended as a metaphor for how it feels once your mind comes to identify with your underlying field of consciousness, as opposed to the contents of that consciousness. I noted that this raised a question which I promised to come back to: why would this kind of a shift in identification reduce suffering?

What I have outlined above suggests an answer: because craving subsystems are activated by a prediction of positive or negative valence being experienced by the self-model. If the system’s self-model changes so that experiences are no longer interpreted as happening to the self-model, craving will not trigger, nor will it produce a feeling of unsatisfactoriness. At the same time, non-craving-based motivation can still reason about the consequences of those events and respond appropriately.

In these articles, I have used the term “no-self”, because that seems to be the established translation for anatta; but I could also have used the arguably better translation of“not self”.

In other words, the brain has something of a built-in model defining what kinds of criteria a piece of conscious experience needs to fulfill in order to be incorporated into the self-model. With sufficiently close study, one may come to notice the way in which actually no conscious content fulfills this criteria: there is nothing in consciousness that is “self”… and if there is nothing that is incorporated into the self-model, then there is nothing that could trigger craving.

At the same time, some “no-self” experiences also seem to also be interpreted as “everything is self” rather than “nothing is self”. For example, my earlier post on no-self quoted an experience described as “this is all me [...] my identity is literally everything that I could see through my eyes”. Craving also seems reduced in these situations.

With emotions, the raw experience of the emotion is distinct from the process of naming the emotion; the same emotion may have different names in different languages. Likewise, the subsystem which creates the abstract boundary that craving responds to, and the subsystem which produces the verbal label of that boundary, may be distinct. Thus, if the experience of a boundary dividing self and non-self disappears, then this might on a verbal level be interpreted as either “all is self” or “nothing is self”, depending on which framework one is using and which features of the experience one is paying attention to.

This is the fourth post of the “a non-mystical explanation of insight meditation and the three characteristics of existence” series. The next post in the series is “On the construction of the self”.

Some of the stick figures and musical notes in this post were borrowed from