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12 The concept machine

When conscious the human mind is constantly focused on conept development, either the reinforcing of existing concepts or the creation of new ones. Does a shortage of possibilities for conept development, like for example a shortage of food, lead to serious problems? This appears indeed the case: conept development is a basic need as described by Maslow


12.1 conept development

So when conscious we are constantly focused on conept development: the confirmation of our already existing concepts, the extension or adaptation of them and the creation of new ones. The latter we do consciously when we study: the goal of learning is nothing more than expanding existing concepts and creating new ones. During a study, however, it is not enough we gain new concepts. For new stable concepts to arise, there really needs to be learned. That is why every study contains elements to consolidate those newly learned concepts, what we call practicing or imprinting. If we only once are confronted with a new concept, it is very likely we will quickly forget it and the new concept will disappear in a short time. In our terminology: the power of a newly formed concept is generally insufficient to be sustained for a long time without new reinforcements. In other words, without sufficient reinforcement, the lifespan of a newly created concept will generally be too short. In conscious learning, all sorts of techniques are used to extend the life span of the newly created concepts. Repetition is a well-known technique for learning things that have little meaning for the student, such as learning strange words. Using mnemonic triggers can help with this and visualization is also often used: connecting meaningless concepts to images, for which most people's memory is obviously better. Also the application of learned knowledge is a widely used learning technique. The new concept will then be connected to several existing concepts.

Although learning and studying are important activities, it is a specific activity for which people usually are not only internally motivated, but above all externally. They want to obtain a diploma, promote at work or have a better hobby. The proposition in the previous chapter, however, was not limited to such situations and was formulated generally: during his conscious life one is constantly focused on and busy with strengthening and expanding his concepts or the creation new concepts, thus aimed at conept development.

I have already said 'being focused on' does not necessarily mean we actually experience this activity as a goal we are consciously aimed at. The body knows many mechanisms which can be described as directed towards a certain effect, or, if you want to call it that, towards a certain purpose, without being aware of it in ordinary life. For example, one can state one's body is aimed at controlling the body temperature in the vicinity of 36 ° C, apart from the moments of fever when the temperature is regulated a few degrees higher. If that goal-oriented mechanism did not work permanently, it would have been done quickly with us.

One can argue there is an essential difference between the goals that are consciously strived for and all kinds of control mechanisms in the body that ensure the temperature remains around 36 ° C. However, this distinction cannot be maintained consistently. Usually the body regulates internal processes that together are able to keep the temperature in the vicinity of 36 ° C. Getting goose bumps and sweating are familiar experiences. However, once the internal control process is no longer sufficient to reach the optimum temperature, the mind receives powerful signals that are perceived as unpleasant and usually result in the urge to consciously take measures to influence body temperature into the right direction.

When people cool down and at some point quiver of the cold they pull more clothes or look for a warmer space, when it's hot as hell they do the opposite. During the period of inconvenience the main objective will be to warm up or cool down, everything will be done to achieve that goal. If one does not succeed the situation can even become life-threatening. However, the conscious activities go further: people are constantly anticipating the expected temperature. When you go outside you pull a coat, before you actually feel cold, the lower the temperature the thicker the jacket. So in the winter people wear more warm clothes, on a hot summer day as little as possible This is not done consciously to keep the body temperature at 36 ° C, but just to not getting hot or cold. Thanks to years of experience, people know in advance they are getting cold in winter if they do not wear enough warm clothes and in the summer too hot if dressed too thick.

I note maintaining the body temperature at approximately constant value is a body orientation one is unaware of in normal situations, but on which one constantly anticipates with conscious actions and, once the 'goal' cannot be achieved, powerful signals of negative feelings (cold, shivering, sweating) reach the conscious mind and drive us to take adequate measures. In fact, in this situation there is little difference between the 'goal' that the body strives for and what one does consciously, looking for the heat or cooling and putting on the most suitable clothes.

Incidentally, something similar happens at targets that are consciously chosen. Suppose I want an ice cream and therefore intend to cycle to the local ice cream parlor. I take my wallet, get on my bike and drive to the ice cream parlour. Am I always aware of my goal while cycling? Certainly not. I know where the ice cream parlour is and along which roads I have to go there. During the ride I will think of everything but it is unlikely that I see an ice cream or the ice cream parlour in front of my mind's eye during the entire bike ride. Reaching the ice cream parlour requires a number of intermediate steps that don't have anything to do with ice cream or ice cream parlor, steps I follow without thinking about it. But if the road turns out to be closed a hundred yards in front of the ice cream parlour causing I can't continue the route, I immediately wonder how I can get to the ice cream parlour. Which makes it clear all the time my mind has been focused at reaching the ice cream parlor, even though I was not constantly aware of that goal. 'Being focused on' and 'being consciously focused on' are different things, but often entangled in practice.

The body is focused on keeping the temperature approximately constant, which in practice is only noticed if the mechanism does not work properly causing threatening the body to become too cold or too hot. Likewise, the body is directed to administering sufficient oxygen to the muscles through the heart, lungs and circulation. If that does not work properly, we will get short of breath and we will do everything we can to get enough air. The same applies to the supply of nutrients that are needed as fuel and building materials for the body, in the absence of which we get hungry. The same aplies with the intake of water.

Analogous to this I postulate the proposition that one is permanently focused on conept development. Does this mean, in accordance with the regulation of our body temperature, we also receive negative signals if this need for conept development is insufficiently satisfied, causing us to consciously take measures to provide for this? To answer that question, we first consider the Maslow Pyramid, which was introduced in 1943.

12.2 Maslow's hierarchy of needs

The American psychologist Abraham H. Maslow (1908-1970), initially supporter of behaviourism, later developed so-called humanistic psychology. He saw man as a uniquely motivated individual with a wide range of motives. Every person strives for self-realization or self-development. To achieve this, a number of basic human needs must be at least satisfied. All these basic needs are innate. In this way a hierarchy of human needs arose, also known as the Maslow Pyramid[1].

Maslovs pyramid

The most basic needs are the physiological or primary biological needs such as obtaining food and drink, but also things like sufficient heat, oxygen, etc.

As soon as you are assured of sufficient food and drink, you will focus on the safety needs and the need for social security.
When the above needs are fulfilled, you focus on social needs, described by Maslow as the need to belong to a particular group.
Next you try to fulfil your desire for (self) appreciation and esteem.
The highest state a person can achieve is that of self-actualization. In people who actualize themselves, the need for meaning and purpose in their lives is most important. According to Maslow, it's the level of free self-development.

Maslow now states an individual can at any time be motivated only to satisfy a particular need, if all underlying needs have already been satisfied. Although in his article of 1943, he directly puts this law into perspective and acknowledges the highest level of self-realization is reserved only for the intellectual and artistic upper class, he maintains the main line of his theory for the non-psychologically ill person. Empirically, the law he claims has proved not tenable, people are certainly looking for fulfilment of 'higher' needs even if 'lower' ones are not fully satisfied. But Maslow's classification as such is useful for my purpose here.

Maslow builds his pyramid on the foundation of two observations: on the one hand the motivation of each person to achieve certain goals and on the other hand the effects of deprivation, the lack of factors that are needed. The fundamental need of every human being at a certain level in the pyramid does manifest itself only if serious deprivation does not occur at any of the underlying levels, according to Maslow. For example, someone who feels extremely hungry will not be motivated to develop his social contacts. Once again, I leave open the question if that's always the case, I only wonder what the causes of these generally obvious phenomena might be.

Let's consider the first pillar, the motivation to achieve certain goals. What Maslow essentially claims corresponds to what I stated before. Although focusing on the satisfaction of a particular need can explicitly occur to us, that will hardly be the case in normal situations. The trip to the ice cream parlor discussed in the previous paragraph indicated that the goal, reaching the ice cream parlour, after first be formulated, will hardly be consciously experienced during the trip. Until a closed road hinders my going on and I consciously wonder how to get to the ice cream parlour. The same applies to the needs in the pyramid. As long as those have been satisfied to a reasonable degree, they play in the consciousness - say I, Maslow doesn't talk about consciousness - no role. However, if no longer satisfied, those needs are pushed to the forefront, easily expelling all (parent) others.

The pyramid represents a system approach. The question can be asked what I, as an individual, experience. As long as I do not feel hungry or hungry, the need for food does not play an important role. However, as discussed earlier, I will consciously take all sorts of measures to prevent a shortage of food. I buy food, think up nice recipes, and so on. Thanks to the fact those activities don't cost me much energy, at the same time I can focus on higher needs in the pyramid too. As soon as my need for food is no longer satisfied, however, I receive powerful signals (empty stomach, starving) I experience as extremely unpleasant and push me to the utmost to satisfy that need as quickly as possible. If that does not work out, it will start a process of degeneration, ultimately leading to death. For the higher needs in the pyramid the same applies, albeit that deprivation, while not leading to death, may lead to serious psychological problems for the individual, as we shall see.

12.3 The consequences of conceptual deprivation

People are generally focused on making their concept machine work well. But what if that falter, when you get only few or no experiences and impressions? As soon as that happens, people soon get bored and start looking for environments that have more to offer. Watching television, playing games, making conversations, using social media, every experience is better than no experience at all.

In 1982, the Dutch Journal of Medicine published an article under the heading 'Clinical Lessons' in which the authors describe psychological disorders in intensive care patients as a result of sensory deprivation [2]. The lesson starts as follows:
"Ladies and Gentlemen,
Suppose that you, as a test subject, undergo the following experiment: you have been immersed in water of 36 ° C in a swimming pool, in which light or sound does not penetrate. You will float under the water surface with the command not to make a sound nor to move, except breathing through a hose. In other words: you see, smell and taste nothing. You hear and feel almost nothing.
During this swimming pool experience, your state of mind will gradually change dramatically: you will become disoriented in time, you will no longer be able to focus on a subject, the awareness of boundaries between you and your environment will decrease, lively performances and forgotten memories - which sometimes take on the character of hallucinations - intrudes your mind. You get unpleasant physical sensations, your thoughts become disordered, you get annoyed or anxious, you get a strong urge to move you and eventually even the prospect of a high reward can't lead you to stay in the pool.
Every day people, when they are hospitalized, are unintentionally brought into a state that is comparable with the above experiment . The lack of normal information through the senses is called sensory deprivation. The result is an a-specific disturbance of the psychic functions: the consciousness, the orientation, the concentration of attention, the self-awareness, the perception, the proposition, the thinking and the memory, the mood and the psychomotorics, all are more or less upset; the psychiatric images that emerge vary from moderately serious to life-threatening. "

A similar phenomenon occurs in prisoners who are been lonely locked up in a small cell. In 2013 numerous links appeared on the internet with an essay entitled 'Voices from Solitary: A Sentence Worse Than Death', written by William Blake, an American who had been in solitary confinement for almost 26 years for a 77-year sentence. He was already four years in 'administrative segregation at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility located in south central New York State', locked in a 'Special Housing Unit' SHU and writes:

“There is nothing in a SHU yard but air: no TV, no balls to bounce, no games to play, no other inmates, nothing. There is very little allowed in a SHU cell, also. Three sets of plain white underwear, one pair of green pants, one green short-sleeved button-up shirt, one green sweatshirt, ten books or magazines total, twenty pictures of the people you love, writing supplies, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, one deodorant stick but no shampoo, and that’s about it. No clothes of your own, only prison-made. No food from commissary or packages, only three unappetizing meals a day handed to you through a narrow slot in your cell door. No phone calls, no TV, no luxury items at all.
Your options in what to do to occupy your time in SHU are scant, but there will be boredom aplenty. You probably think that you understand boredom, know its feel, but really you don’t. What you call boredom would seem a whirlwind of activity to me, choices so many that I’d likely be befuddled in trying to pick one over all the others. You could turn on a TV and watch a movie or some other show; I haven’t seen a TV since the 1980s. You could go for a walk in the neighborhood; I can’t walk more than a few feet in any direction before I run into a concrete wall or steel bars. You could pick up your phone and call a friend; I don’t know if I’d be able to remember how to make a collect call or even if the process is still the same, so many years it’s been since I’ve used a telephone. Play with your dog or cat and experience their love, or watch your fish in their aquarium; the only creatures I see daily are the mice and cockroaches that infest the unit, and they’re not very lovable and nothing much to look at. There is a pretty good list of options available to you, if you think about it, many things that you could do even when you believe you are so bored. You take them for granted because they are there all the time, but if it were all taken away you’d find yourself missing even the things that right now seem so small and insignificant. Even the smallest stuff can become as large as life when you have had nearly nothing for far too long.
Had I known in 1987 that I would spend the next quarter-century in solitary confinement, I would have certainly killed myself. If I took a month to die and spent every minute of it in severe pain, it seems to me that on a balance that fate would still be far easier to endure than the last twenty-five years have been. If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box—and I have tried to imagine it—I can come up with nothing. Set me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do what you will in the worst of ways, but none of it could come close to making me feel things as cumulatively horrifying as what I’ve experienced through my years in solitary. Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths. The sum of my quarter-century’s worth of suffering has been that bad.”

The aforementioned quotation from the clinical lesson concerns an almost complete deprivation of all sensory stimuli. The fact that situation is unliveable could be caused by physiological causes. In the case of solitary confinement, however, there is no question of sensual deprivation: all kinds of sensory stimuli simply enter the prisoner. The needs in the lower layer of the Maslow Pyramid are also satisfactorily satisfied. There is sufficient, albeit not so tasty food and also other body needs (water, oxygen, temperature and so on) is hardly lacking. Yet the prisoner experiences it as a constant death penalty. So it must be something else that causes the problems. The key to the answer is given in the same quote: a deadly boredom and emptiness. In other words, the mind is insufficiently fed, the environment is too poor in information. To stay in the metaphor of the concept machine: the machine does not get enough fuel. Here no sensual deprivation is at issue, the problem is conceptual deprivation.

I argued one is constantly focused on conept development, which is not possible without experiences that can strengthen or adjust the enormous mass of our concepts. In other words: regular reinforcement is required to maintain concepts. As soon as one receives too few different images, sounds, tastes, smells and tastings, reinforcement of many concepts is no longer possible and people become mentally dysfunctional. Concepts can also be strengthened by non-sensory realization, by thinking about it, a mechanism which works apparently not sufficiently. One feels a kind of mental pain, ranging from boredom to severe torture. Apparently it is not about the amount of stimulation as such, whereof the prisoner gets enough; what it is probably about is the one-sidedness, the constant receiving of the same stimuli. The situation of the prisoner also makes it clear that the human mind, which can raise quite a few thoughts, is not capable of sufficiently feeding the concept machine. The own mind produces, apart from fantasies and hallucinations, in general too little new information.

We now see the agreement with physical abstinence. Normally one does not feel the need of food, the feeling emerges only when one gets an empty stomach. When food lacks for a long time, the body shows a violent negative reaction, which will often suppress all other needs. After a hearty meal, there is no need for food for the time being, until after a while the appetite for food reappears.

The concept motor behaves accordingly. Especially if it has been running for a long time and people have gained a lot of information, it is nice to have a mental rest and not to get too much new information. But if it takes too long, people get bored and the need for other experiences becomes manifest. If the engine can't work for a long time due to a lack of fuel, people will mentally become completely dysfunctioned. One starts hallucinating, loses his orientation and so on. With full sensory deprivation, the symptoms are even more powerful. In practice most people never experience this, just like, at least in the Western world, full food deprivation. Therefore one can conclude conept development is a basic need, comparable to the physiological needs in the bottom layer in Maslow's pyramid. Although, just like severe hunger, in daily practice we never experience it, conceptual deprivation irrevocably leads to the dysfunction of our organism.

Maslow's needs pyramid model may not be empirically adequate, it does provide insight into the different types of needs. Conceptual needs are lacking, while in the event of failure to satisfy them serious mental problems arise, comparable to hunger. The bottom step splits, as it were, and consists of two different but equal basic needs: the physiological need besides that of conept development, so the pyramid ought to look like this:

Maslows Pyramid extended

The following statements can now be formulated:

12.3.1 conept development is the first basic need of man, directly comparable with all known physiological needs


12.3.2 Sufficient rich sensory impressions are required for minimal necessary conept development


12.3.3 Conceptual deprivation leads to dysfunctioning of the entire organism



[1] A Theory of Human Motivation, A. H. Maslow (1943)
Originally Published in Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

[2] L.N.M. Perquin, Dr. J.A.C. Bleeker, Dr. J. Roos
Psychische stoornissen bij intensive care-patiënten; de gevolgen van sensore deprivatie
Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde 126, nr.38, 1982

[3] The complete article: Voices_from_Solitary.pdf