Several years ago, a medical accident left me with severely impaired cognitive function for about 12 hours. It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.
My IQ couldn’t have been more than 30, and my working memory was tiny. I couldn’t form full sentences, and had very few words. I could respond to very simple questions and state simple desires “Yes”, “No”, “Go”, and some curse words. My ability to form thoughts was better than my ability to speak, but not by much. My speed of thinking slowed to a crawl, and it took intense concentration to form thoughts containing more than a few predicate clauses. Many thoughts were simply impossible, because they took too long to form, and portions of the thought would be dropped from working memory before I had a chance to finish forming the thought. I would just get confused and give up.
It took some time for me to become aware that I was stupid, and I initially became alarmed. My anxiety wasn’t very sophisticated; it was basically “something went wrong”, “I’m stupid”, and “people are looking at me strange”. I knew those things were bad, but I couldn’t follow the implications far enough to know why they were bad. It was extremely hard work, and I had to give up.
As time went on, the anxiety at being stupid faded away, like some forgotten memory from a life that was no longer mine. I literally couldn’t concentrate long enough to figure out why stupidity was bad, so it stopped being bad. Same for the way that people reacted to me. I couldn’t possibly figure out why I used to think people’s strange looks were bad, so it stopped being bad.
I was definitely able to feel annoyance at environmental irritants, but the annoyance faded as soon as the source of irritation was removed, or as soon as I attenuated. I probably would have reacted violently if someone had provoked me physically, but my field of consciousness shrunk to a very small sliding window of time. As I got used to functioning this way, something very strange happened. Anxiety and unhappiness became memories of a distant past. I was aware enough of the strangeness of this to feel mildly pleased about it.
By the next day, I was back to full mental function. IQ, working memory, and speed of thought were all back. However, it was a few days before I returned to the habit of caring about things beyond a small window of time.
This experience was a puzzle that has fascinated me for many years. Here is a random brain-dump of some questions that have stemmed from this experience for me:
1) When you are cognitively impaired, you honestly don’t care, and you’re pretty happy. But success in modern life requires that you care about a lot of things. If you want to be able to form and execute multi-step plans, you need a certain level of neurotic obsession with details. You have to care. But how much should you care? What’s the “right” balance? That’s a fascinating problem.
2) It seems that, when cognitive function is impaired enough, you very quickly learn to not care, but it takes longer to start caring after function is restored. Why is there a mismatch? I don’t have any guesses, but I think the answer could have important implications.
3) While cognitively impaired, I could maintain a fairly reliable history of all of my thoughts and mental states. That is, my history was not impaired. My long-term memory was not impaired. What was impaired was my ability to pull multiple long-term memories into working memory and process them quickly to calculate implications. Once my cognitive function was restored, I continued to remember the historical details from when I was impaired, but could now integrate and process them to consider the implications. This raises a whole slew of interesting questions.
4) Living “in the moment” is about thwarting your working memory and your processing power (working memory and processing speed are inextricably linked). Thwarting these essentials probably makes you happier, but also makes you more like an animal. We hypothesize that a superhuman intelligence will have a far vaster working memory than we have, and also a far faster processing speed. So any God or demi-God who vastly exceeds us in these two capabilities will be able to experience suffering that vastly exceeds the suffering that we human “retards” could ever hope to experience. I suspect that suffering is directly correlated with working memory and processing speed.
5) Animal suffering. It seems popular to place animal suffering on the same scale of suffering with humans. In my experience, though, I was well above animals, but still quite free of suffering. My experience leads me to suspect that suffering requires self-conscious intentionality. Animals don’t have that. We humans can suffer on behalf of others, even where those others are incapable of suffering. Extrapolating this beyond humans, to superhuman intelligence, is a fascinating exercise.
6) What exactly is the link between memory and suffering? General anesthesia typically induces both paralysis and amnesia, and there have been cases where the paralysis part works, but the patient experiences and remembers the pain. It seems that there is a close link between the amnesia and the pain elimination. Anterograde amnesia is roughly opposite to what happened to me. In anterograde amnesia, the patient cannot form long-term memories, but has perfectly good working memory and speed of thought. This TED talk from Dan Gilbert explains that people with anterograde amnesia are capable of remembering emotional dispositions that form after onset of the disease, even if they don’t remember how the associations are formed. This is probably some form of operant conditioning, but also points more firmly to working memory as the culprit — loss of long-term memory does not prevent suffering. I really want to see more research performed to test theories like this.
7) If the theory holds true about suffering, does it also hold true for happiness? Or is there any asymmetry? Here is another TED talk, this time from Daniel Kahneman, about the way that our long-term memories of being happy are often very different from our actual self-reported happiness during the event. It’s absolutely fascinating.
In conclusion, I think that many of our folk intuitions about joy and suffering are hopelessly flawed, and a lot of our philosophical considerations on the topic are equally flawed. We need more experimental research to help us start forming a firm empirical foundation before further discussions.