It is often helpful to distinguish between the distal causes of a behaviour and its proximal causes.
The pleasure of orgasm, for example, is only the proximal cause of a behaviour whose ultimate cause is reproduction.
It is the proximal causes that are the most often selected by evolution. Imagine two men, one who felt nothing when he attempted to reproduce and another who experienced intense pleasure. It is not hard to imagine which man would leave more descendants, who in turn would inherit his drive to reproduce!
"The brain's job isn't to let you think; it's to let
you take action."
- Henri Laborit
"The purpose of memory is not to let us recall the past,
but to let us anticipate the future. Memory is a tool
- Alain Berthoz
A behaviour is a set of movements coordinated
by the nervous system to preserve the structure of the organism.
The basic behaviour is therefore to approach or explore the
resources available in the environment.
When an action to acquire one of these resources is rewarded,
this gratifying behaviour is positively
reinforced, and the strategy through which the need was satisfied is
The other main basic behaviour is to
avoid pain, and hence to avoid situations that might lead to
the organism’s premature
flight, and inhibition
of behaviour are the three possible behavioural responses
to a nociceptive stimulus.
Just like gratifying behaviours, the response of fighting, fleeing,
or inhibiting behaviour in response to a threatening stimulus can
be either effective or ineffective. The associated behaviour is
then memorized as either a winning or a losing strategy.
The following diagram shows how a behaviour
is memorized if it succeeds and discarded for an alternative strategy
if it fails.
Our environment is full of potentially
gratifying objects that stimulate our approach behaviours. But
it is also full of other people who also want to use these resources
to ensure their own well-being. Each individual must therefore
learn to decode other people’s intentions in order to choose
the attitude that will make his or her own actions the most effective.
For example, if you resisted somebody who was trying to take some
resource away from you, and you ended up not only losing the resource
but also getting injured in the struggle, then the next time, the
memory of this failure might very well cause you to simply run
And if this person were someone from whom you could not flee (for
example, because you were economically dependent on them), then
you would learn that the best thing to do would be to inhibit your
own behaviour and accept your subordinate status.
This shows how social
hierarchies are established.
The three reactions that let you avoid pain trigger hormonal and
vasimotor adjustments that are controlled by the sympathetic
nervous system. The activation of this system provides increased
motor autonomy, mainly by increasing the oxygenation of the skeletal
But these changes cannot last indefinitely,
or they would interfere with the healthy functioning of those
parts of the body, such as the internal organs, that were left
temporarily short of blood. Once the source of the threat has
disappeared, the body’s
equilibrium must therefore be rapidly restored.
In certain social situations, however, this can be impossible,
and the only solution may be to remain
in a state of inhibited behaviour, which can have disastrous
effects in the long term.