My new favorite book talks about a fascinating subject that I've read about before, but never so clearly and in so much depth as Andy Clark's The Experience Machine: How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality.
Now, before New Age types get all excited about how the human mind creates its own reality, this definitely isn't what Clark, a professor of cognitive philosophy, is describing. But it is true that each of us fashions our view of reality to some extent in accord with our previous experiences.
Clark starts off by relating a story of how he woke up to the sound of bird noises. Except, he soon realized that his surroundings were perfectly quiet. What had happened was that his partner had gotten a smartphone app that plays a birdsong rather than a traditional alarm.
After hearing the birdsong app for several days, Clark's brain had played a trick on him. Here's how he describes the trick, followed by a summary of his book's thesis.
I now find that I quite often awake well in advance of the start of the actual alarm, already seeming to hear the faint onset of those prerecorded chirps. These are genuine auditory hallucinations, caused by my new, strong expectation of waking to the subtle sound of the birds.
There is probably nothing sinister about my proneness to this hallucination. It has long been known that hallucinations, both auditory and visual, can be quite easily induced by the right kind of training.
But these, as well as a myriad of other intriguing phenomena, are lately falling into place of signs of something much larger -- something that lies at the very heart of all human experience. The idea (the main topic of this book) is that human brains are prediction machines.
They are evolved organs that build and rebuild experiences from shifting mixtures of expectation and actual sensory evidence. According to that picture, my own unconscious predictions about what I was likely to be hearing as I awoke pulled my perceptual experience briefly in that direction, creating a short-lived hallucination that was soon corrected as more information flowed in through my senses.
That new information (signifying the lack of birdsong) generated "prediction error signals" and these -- on this occasion at least -- were all it took to bring my experience back into line with reality. The hallucination gave way to a clear experience of a silent room.
But in other cases, as we'll see, mistaken predictions can become entrenched and contact with reality (itself a complex and vexed notion) harder to achieve. Even when there are no mistakes involved, and we are seeing things "as they are," our brain's predictions are still playing a central role.
Predictions and prediction errors are increasingly recognized as the core currency of the human brain, and it is in their shifting balances that all human experience takes shape.
This book is about those balances and an emerging science that turns much of what we thought we knew about perceiving our worlds upside down. According to that science, the brain is constantly trying to guess how things in the world (and our own body) are most likely to be, given what has been learned from previous encounters.
Everything that I see, hear, touch, and feel -- so this new science suggests -- reflects hidden wells of prediction. If the expectations are sufficiently strong, or (as in early chirps of the bird alarm) the sensory evidence sufficiently subtle, I may get things wrong, in effect overwriting parts of the real sensory information with my brain's best guess of how things ought to be.
This does not mean that successful sensing is simply a form of hallucination, though the mechanisms are related to those of hallucination. We should not downplay the importance of all that rich sensory information arriving at the eyes, ears, and other senses.
But it casts the process of seeing -- and of perceiving more generally -- in a new and different way. It casts it as a process led by our brain's best predictions: predictions that are then checked and corrected using the sensory inputs as a guide.
With the prediction machinery up and running, perception becomes a process structured not simply by incoming sensory information but by difference -- the difference between the actual sensory signals and the ones the brain was expecting to encounter.
I'll be interested to see if this is reflected in the rest of the book -- I've only finished the first chapter -- but it makes sense to me: that religious or mystical experiences occurring entirely within one's own mind, not out there in the world, are especially prone to being hallucinations resulting from strong predictions, or expectations, of what should occur.
After all, as we've seen in the above excerpt from Clark's book, what keeps the brain in close touch with reality is sensory information that corrects erroneous predictions about what ought to be perceived.
So if a religious believer is engaged in closed-eyes meditation with the expectation that their devotion will result in experiencing God, Jesus, the astral form of their guru, divine light/sound, or whatever, and their brain manifests such an experience, there's no way for that person to use error-correcting sensory information to bring "what appears to be" into closer correspondence with "what actually is."
I said closer correspondence because in one of the last pages I read this morning, Clark dispels the notion that there's any such thing as reality "as it is" -- a favorite saying of many spiritual writers that I'm pleased to see makes little sense. Here he's talking about pain and other sorts of medical symptoms, but his point applies generally.
Since all human experience is constructed from mixtures of expectation, attention, and sensory stimulation, it will never be possible to experience either the world or your own body "as it really is." Indeed, it rapidly becomes unclear what this could even mean.
Instead, there exists a deep continuity between cases where expectation and attention create symptoms (as we saw earlier) "from whole cloth" and cases where they also reflect the operation of some more standard form of disease and injury. Functional disorders simply lie at one end of this spectrum.
If you want to experience how your brain uses prior experience to predict current reality, check out these examples of sine-wave speech.
First listen to the brief SWS (sine-wave speech) audio. Probably you can't make any sense of it. Then listen to the original audio. After you hear the original, listen again to the SWS audio. If you're like me, and probably you are, now the SWS audio will be quite clear, since your brain has the experience of the original audio to predict what the SWS audio is saying.
How we talk online is much different from how we talk in person
Next year I'll celebrate the 20th anniversary from when I started this blog in 2004. But, hey, I figure that I might as well spread out the festivities by making some observations from time to time about this here Church of the Churchless.
Like, right now.
The most important thing I want to say is gratitude. Over the years I've learned a great deal from the people who visit this blog and leave comments. Typepad, my blogging service, says there have been 70,198 comments on 3,390 posts.
So that's about 21 comments, on average, per post that I've written. I read most comments, though if I'm busy, I'll just take a glance at a comment, especially if it's a lengthy one.
Those comments are my blog's way of having a conversation -- with me, and with other blog visitors. I wish Typepad allowed for editing of comments by the people who share them, and that it was possible to organize the comments in a different fashion than in a chronological fashion.
But wishes aren't reality. Anyway, I deeply appreciate the time and effort people put into their comments, though obviously the quality varies from a high quality essay to random observations that make little sense.
Which is no different from the conversations all of us have in everyday life. But otherwise, there's big differences between how people communicate online versus in person.
Online, many choose to not use their real name. I can understand why in certain circumstances. For example, on this blog criticism of a religious leader, or the religion itself, can be problematic if someone uses their real name and is still involved with the organization they're criticizing.
That's why most people who write to me with an interesting story about their faith ask that I share it anonymously. The downside of anonymity, though, is that it enables people to say things in cyberspace that they'd be reluctant to say to someone face-to-face.
I'm definitely guilty of this myself at times. So if I'm directing a blog post or a comment at a specific person, I need to do better at visualizing that person standing in front of me as I say what I want to say about them.
Another problem with online conversations is that in ordinary life communication doesn't just involve words. It also involves a tone of voice, facial expressions, body language. And of course, an ability to say things like "I don't quite understand; please elaborate on what you meant when you said _______"
So its easy to misunderstand those with whom we interact online.
I like to express strong opinions. Many commenters on my blog posts also like to express strong opinions. So we’re going to feel misunderstood by other people at times. That comes with the territory of expressing strong opinions in a setting where only written words can be shared, not the other ways we use to communicate with people.
In a way it's surprising that comment conversations on this blog are as friendly and productive as they usually are, given how many obstacles there are to understanding another person in cyberspace.
But sometimes feelings get hurt. This is unfortunate, though often unavoidable. Partly it's due to different ways of communicating between men and women. I don't want to overemphasize this. It just seems like a reality to me.
I talked about this in a 2005 post on my HinesSight blog, "Why men don't share their feelings."
“How’re you doing?” says Dennis as I walk into the Pacific Martial Arts changing room. Instead of replying with my habitual robotic “Fine, how’re you?” I have a crazy impulse to actually tell him. I’ll share my feelings!
“Well, my feet have been tingling for about a week. I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve got an appointment to see a doctor tomorrow.” Without missing a beat (appropriately: Dennis is a drummer) I hear, “You’ve got a brain tumor. No doubt about it. You’re going to die.”
For the rest of our hour and a half training session, whenever I stop to check on how my feet are doing Dennis again says, “Oh yeah, you’ve got a brain tumor. Your time is up.”
Sensei Warren, our regular martial arts instructor, came in late. After telling him my tale of tingling feet I got a marginally better prognosis: “You’ve got diabetic neuropathy. No doubt about it. You’re going to lose your feet.” And I don’t even have diabetes.
Now, I know both Dennis and Warren care a lot about me. They demonstrated their manly concern by telling me that I’m either going to die or lose my feet. If one of them had given me a big hug and said “Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right,” I would have begun to worry that he had a brain tumor.
If I want sympathy, I’ll tell my troubles to my wife. From my marital arts buddies I get camaraderie and support that isn’t expressed in words. Dennis taught the class that evening. He started off by saying, “Let’s work on kicks tonight since your feet are giving you a problem.”
Which is what we did. For almost an hour. The unspoken message was, “Your feet are OK. Suck it up. This is no big deal.” That’s pretty much what the doctor said the next day: “Your feet look fine; I’ll do a blood test anyway; call me in a month if you’re not better.”
I'm sharing this anecdote because it points to a seeming fact: men are more comfortable with the rough-and-tumble of online communications because they're more used to joking around with each other in some rough ways.
This is fine.
But I worry when a woman shares something on this blog, then gets attacked in an intense fashion. Mostly or entirely by men. That's when I feel protective toward the woman, since I feel responsible for providing a safe space for people to share their ideas without feeling like they're in some sort of danger.
Well, those are my thoughts for tonight. Thanks for listening. I'll get back to a regular Church of the Churchless blog post soon.
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