Before discussing the subject that's the title of this post - how the brain makes predictions come true -- I'll shoehorn in a related personal story about my check ordering saga.
Recently Columbia Bank, which my wife and I use for a checking account, was bought by Umpqua Bank. For many years I've ordered checks for our Columbia Bank account when the supply ran low. Last month was the first time I'd ordered checks with Umpqua Bank on them.
Balancing our checkbook about a week ago, I noticed that we'd been charged on May 17 for the cost of mailing the Umpqua Bank checks I'd ordered. That got me to wondering why the checks hadn't arrived.
After that bit of wondering, every time I opened our mailbox I'd look to see if the checks had been delivered. But day after day, no checks. When May became June, I started to worry that the checks had been lost.
Yesterday I decided to contact the web site that produces and mails checks. Looking for a way to do this, I noticed a FAQ (frequently asked questions) page. One question was about what to do if a check order hasn't arrived.
The advice was to log in to your account, then click on an "order status" link. I did that. And was surprised to find that the checks had been delivered. Which I immediately remembered had happened.
So how is it that I kept looking in our mail for checks that were sitting in a drawer in our house? Here's my theory. As noted in my first two posts about Andy Clark's book, The Experience Machine, modern neuroscience says that the human brain is constantly making predictions about the world.
Thus rather than perception being an objective mirror of the outside world, the brain is using past experience to predict what is most likely to appear in a given situation. Discrepancies between that expectation and what is actually perceived are errors that, ideally, lead us to fashion a more accurate understanding of what's there.
In my case, I didn't have any experience ordering checks with Umpqua Bank on them. So even though all of my Columbia Bank orders had arrived without a problem, my brain wasn't as confident about the May check order.
When I saw the charge for the checks on our bank statement, a sense of "something is wrong" popped into my head. I didn't think that thought. It just appeared in my mind with a convincing sense of rightness.
From that point on, "something is wrong" formed the prediction in my brain when I opened our mailbox. Every day no checks were there, that strengthened the prediction. Of course, the problem was that there actually wasn't a problem.
But I needed an external push to realize that -- the FAQ about not getting a check order. For my brain was in a closed loop founded on a basic error: that the checks hadn't arrived. Sure, most people reading this are probably thinking, "You're a fool for not looking in the drawer."
No argument there. However, I never thought to look in the drawer where we keep blank checks because my brain was saying that the checks hadn't arrived with a sense of certainty that resulted in me looking for the checks every day we got mail.
Bottom line: the brain works in mysterious ways.
Regarding how the brain makes predictions come true, here's how Andy Clark describes the basic process. It shows how perception and action are much the same, since each uses prediction and error correction to do their job.
To see how this works consider a simple action such as turning my head to see the seagulls out of my office window.
...The sound of the gulls, and the fact that I'm now looking for a nice example of prediction-based action control, makes me want to look out the window and see the gulls. I do so.
In predictive processing terms, what happened is this. The sound of the gulls, and my need for a familiar example, made me strongly predict looking toward the gulls. The best way to get rid of the resulting prediction errors (which were many, since I was still actually looking at my busy computer screen) was to turn my head just so and move my eyes just the right amount.
...The deep unity (under predictive processing) of perception and action should now be apparent. There are two different, but equally effective, ways to minimize prediction errors during our encounters with the world.
The first is by using prediction errors to help us discover the best guess about how things are out there in the world. But the second is to act so as to make the world fit some of our predictions. Instead of finding the prediction that best fits the sensory evidence (perception), you now find or create the sensory evidence that best fits the prediction.
ln the case of my supposedly missing checks, my brain initially had made a prediction that the checks hadn't been delivered after I noticed that our account had been charged for them. Yes, that prediction was wrong, since the checks had been delivered and were sitting in a drawer.
But it felt right.
And every day I opened our mailbox and saw no checks, that perception made the prediction seem even more right. It was action that corrected the errors being made. Once I realized that the checks had been delivered, and that I'd forgotten putting them in the drawer, I walked to the drawer, opened it, and picked up the packet of Umpqua Bank checks.
Now the new prediction -- the checks were in my possession -- had been confirmed with no errors.
As I get deeper into The Experience Machine, I'm learning some ways we can improve our relationship with the world and ourselves. That will be the focus of my next post about the book, which I'm enjoying a lot.
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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