A possible evolutionary function of phenomenal conscious experience of pain

Oren Kolodny, Roy Moyal, Shimon Edelman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Evolutionary accounts of feelings, and in particular of negative affect and of pain, assume that creatures that feel and care about the outcomes of their behavior outperform those that do not in terms of their evolutionary fitness. Such accounts, however, can only work if feelings can be shown to contribute to fitness-influencing outcomes. Simply assuming that a learner that feels and cares about outcomes is more strongly motivated than one that does is not enough, if only because motivation can be tied directly to outcomes by incorporating an appropriate reward function, without leaving any apparent role to feelings (as it is done in state-of-the-art engineered systems based on reinforcement learning). Here, we propose a possible mechanism whereby pain contributes to fitness: an actor-critic functional architecture for reinforcement learning, in which pain reflects the costs imposed on actors in their bidding for control, so as to promote honest signaling and ultimately help the system optimize learning and future behavior.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numberniab012
JournalNeuroscience of Consciousness
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

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  • evolution
  • honest signaling
  • pain
  • theories and models


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