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  • Max Stearns

Cycling, Consciousness, and Humanity (part I): General Framing

Our minds wander. We lose focus, or we focus on things that distract from what we intend to be doing. Our minds also cycle, taking us on emotional or cognitive loops, perhaps in ways that merely distract, and perhaps in ways that help define us as conscious, sentient beings, or more simply as human. In this initial post on the topic, I propose something audacious: emotional or cognitive cycling helps to explain consciousness, and perhaps what it means to be human.

Opposite extremes bend our emotional spectrums into a loop. Intense hatred or intense love lead to obsession. Extreme happiness or extreme sadness produce tears. In “normal” emotional states, we neither obsess nor cry. And yet, we tend to think of these states as juxtapositions on a single dimensional scale: extremely happy, happy, content, disturbed, sad, extremely sad or intense love, love, like, indifference, dislike, hate, intense hate. These emotional states are better conceived as a loop, revealing dimensionality in our states of mind. See

Our thoughts, including how we rank our priorities, sometimes cycle. I previously explained how inheriting a vast historical collection put my sister and me in a cognitive loop: (1) unable to absorb it, I’ll donate or sell it all; (2) I want certain keepsakes as a remembrance, so I’ll retain portions; (3) the collection has integrity, so if I keep some, I must take all; (4) I can’t absorb it all, so I’ll donate or sell; etc. (See Some cycles are existential: A pregnant woman with small children suffers pre-eclampsia. Continuing the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life; premature delivery endangers the baby. (1) She prioritizes the baby’s welfare ahead of her own, planning to go full term; (2) She prioritizes her young children’s welfare ahead of the unborn child, so she plans an early C-section, putting the baby at risk; (3) She realizes that she lacks the resources, financial and emotional, to care for a child with associated complications that might accompany premature birth, so she chooses to terminate the pregnancy; (4) She refuses to prioritize her well-being over that of her unborn child, so she’ll carry the baby to term. Etc. Others involve “first-world problems”: (1) Marcia wants the career options that she believes only an elite education brings, so she’ll attend an expensive private college; (2) Marcia realizes that the resulting debt will restrict her career options, so she’ll attend a less expensive public institution; (3) Marcia believes that the latter institution will not open the same doors, concluding the investment is unwise, so she’ll forego college; (4) Marcia believes that without higher education, especially at a prestigious institution, she cannot pursue her career goals, and so she will attend an elite private college. Etc.

To be sure, people eventually decide, or fail to do so, sometimes with the effect of having decided. Eventual outcomes don’t negate the cycles; they embed them. Our cognitive development is affected by random factors: timing, ordering of options, who we consult, simple fatigue. Our minds develop in ways that are path dependent: An abandoned child will develop differently if left destitute versus being adopted into a happy, functional home, with pronounced effects on language, culture, wealth, and family and career prospects. Twin studies, although fascinating, do not contradict the inevitable influence of both biology and environment on our cognitive development. (See, e.g., For example, we are programmed to learn language, but no specific language (see This critical element in programming our minds is fortuitous, or path dependent.

Within social choice, cycling is presented as a function of group decision making. “Social choice” captures the intuition that even if individuals hold transitive preferences—preferring A to B to C implies preferring A to C—under specified conditions, group preferences can cycle. With three persons holding transitive preference orderings (Person 1: ABC; Person 2: BCA, Person 3, CAB), binary pairs reveal separate non-transitive majority preferences: preferring A to B to C, yet C to A. The “even if” formulation is a helpful heuristic device whose premise doesn’t always hold.

Individuals sometimes cycle. This is apt to arise when a rule, norm, or value complicates how we conceive our preferences. The daunting phrase, “multi-criterial decision making,” (, should not obscure the essential insight. Increasing our frames of reference can sometimes force us into cognitive or emotional loops. Combining concern for others, for our personal limitations, and for the conflicting needs of those in our care, can force our minds to cycle. So too can juxtaposing the expected benefits of an elite education with the burdens of crushing debt; or the conflicting concerns over sentimentality versus practicality in choosing what to keep.

The likelihood of cycles increases with the number of choices we confront. New options reframe old problems, disrupting earlier priorities. We sometimes evaluate choices dispassionately: which investment strategy will yield the highest return, the lowest tax obligation, or both? Which career path accomplishes the greatest good, produces the highest income, or holds the most prestige? But we aren’t machines. For important choices, we customarily write long lists of pros and cons, consult friends and family, engage in extensive research, then mull, and mull some more, until finally, at the 11th hour, we go with our gut. Our minds overlay, or interweave, analysis with emotion. The rich mix—happiness, sadness, anticipation, pleasure, guilt, obligation, anxiety, uncertainty, plus careful dispassionate calculation and assessment—forces dimensionality onto our choices: which school; which major; which career path; which city; who to date; whether to marry, and, if so, who, etc.

Emotions can loop on their own, as can dispassionate analysis. If we think of these as separate cognitive systems (and yes, that’s oversimplified), we might imagine that combining them only makes matters worse. But that’s mistaken. If these “systems” respond to the same triggers in different ways, either one has the potential sometimes to break a cycle in the other. Emotions can break cognitive cycles, encouraging us to “do the right thing.” Dispassionate analysis can override emotion, encouraging us to “get over it, and move on.”

Of course, we don’t always, or even typically, confront our toughest choices on our own. We are not Robinson Crusoe or “The Martian.” (See, And our relationships are, thankfully, enhanced by our differences. There is a broad, if controversial, literature on brain-sex differences. (, Although scholars debate such factors as biological versus cultural determinants, as Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court, famously observed, one needn’t be sexist to recognize that the different life experiences of men and women cause them sometimes to view the world, and their choices, differently. See And as Ruth Bader Ginsburg has admonished, our differences should be a cause of celebration, not denigration, see Bond-pair mating can help break cycles. Couples discuss, argue, negotiate, and persuade, often helping each other pull out of potentially damaging cognitive loops. Plotlines in which a careerist adult, after an intense argument or prolonged introspection, ditches a critical professional obligation to attend to a loved one are a virtual cliché. (For recent illustrations of the theme, see This is Us (spoiler alert through end of this paragraph!), (Randall abandoning work for daughter, Tess, and for biological father, William; Kevin skipping play opening for Randall). In the real world, cycles aren't always so neatly resolved. Prolonged anxiety is likely as common as moments of epiphany.

Here is my thesis: Over the course of a long evolutionary process (in the “era of evolutionary adaptation,” or “EEA”), we have developed myriad cognitive defenses to cycles, some involving genuine existential threats and others, perhaps, making us less attractive, or helpful, as romantic partners, parents, or members of our communities. Not all cycles pose crises: An indecisive high schooler can delay, gain experience, mature, and then decide. But some decisions can’t wait. The pregnant woman with pre-eclampsia will endanger herself and place her children at risk by not making a difficult choice. And this example might serve as a metaphor for countless, and tragic, “Sophie’s Choice” moments, see, that our ancestors inevitably confronted during our long, and sometimes wrenching, evolutionary path.

What do our cycling defenses look like? Here are a few: (1) we can, for a time, dedicate ourselves to a single-minded goal, pushing away distractions, allowing a laser-like focus to dictate our commands against any of our own contrary wishes; (2) we can systematically restrict our range of choices, for example, foregoing certain foods, drinks, places, or even certain associations with the members of opposite sex, based on religious or cultural commitments; (3) we can modify our internal a moral code, acknowledging considerations that others weigh, but that we typically would not; and (4) we can eschew compromise over competing normative values, even at the expense of our personal gratification, to pursue some nobler purpose.

Without suggesting the list is complete, each identified method of breaking cognitive loops grows out of a central condition of social choice (non-dictatorship, range, independence of irrelevant alternatives, unanimity), that together with ensuring transitive preference orderings, ie., breaking cycles, form the basis for Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. See (link to publication with Arrow’s second, revised proof); (link to William Vickrey’s simplified presentation of Arrow’s proof). This famous theorem was conceived to study institutions, not the human mind. I am arguing that it might be a helpful key here as well. Although each listed mechanism will sometimes succeed in breaking cognitive loops, none is a permanent or ideal solution. To the extent each sometimes succeeds, it is owing to its selective use. Strict adherence to any one method would expose us, render us vulnerable, and during the EEA, perhaps even make us unfit to survive. For each listed device, or strategy, we necessarily developed internal rules concerning when it applies, when it does not, when we replace it with another device subject to its own separate limitations and exceptions, and so on. Our cognitive defense strategies also take the form of a cycle, or series of cycles, of their own respecting rules, meta-rules, meta-meta-rules and on and on. These strategies include internalized habits of mind influenced by familial commitments, religious doctrines, professional obligations, moral commitments, societal rules, clubs and organizations, our wish to survive and to pass on our genes, and more, all of which impose rules or norms, fixed for all time, except when we break them.

The process of cycling upon cycling goes on and on, seemingly without end. But actually, I believe there is an end. I believe it is called consciousness, the critical feature that defines us as human.

There will be more to write, but please don’t let that inhibit you. As always, I truly welcome, and know I will learn from, your comments.

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