Well, I've finished the book I've been writing about recently, Andy Clark's The Experience Machine: How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality.
I enjoyed it a lot. In this post I'll share some tips from the final chapters about how we can use the theory of predictive processing to improve how we experience life. This is a leading theory of modern neuroscience, with references to it popping up in many places.
For example, here's how a review of The Experience Machine in a recent issue of New Scientist starts out.
On a building site, there is a scream of pain. A worker has jumped down from scaffolding and landed on a long nail that is now emerging from the top of his boot. In clear agony, the man is taken to hospital, where his footwear is cut away to reveal that the nail passed between his toes without even breaking the skin.
The pain was entirely in the man's head -- yet it was very real to him, a paradox explained by Andy Clark in his new book The Experience Machine: How our minds predict and shape reality.
In contrast to what we might expect, and what neuroscientists used to believe, the way we perceive the external world isn't just based on raw data coming in through our senses. It is a merging of our brains' predictions combined with that new data.
Known as predictive processing theory, this is one of the hottest topics in neuroscience at the moment, and it has been described as a grand unifying theory of the brain.
On Sam Harris' Waking Up app for smartphones, yesterday I finished listening to a fascinating two-hour discussion between Harris and Shamil Chandaria, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Eudaimonia and Human Flourishing at Linacre College, University of Oxford.
If you've ever thought of giving the Waking Up app a try, this audio discussion would be a great way to see some of what it offers. The app says that I can invite a friend to try the app for 30 days. Here's a link that supposedly unlocks that offer: https://dynamic.wakingup.com/shareOpenAccess/SC548CF28
Don't know if it will work for you, but it's worth a try. If it doesn't, email me (address is in right sidebar), and I'll share the Waking Up invite with you that way.
Harris and Chandaria talk about the brain from first principles; Bayesian inference; hierarchical predictive processing; the construction of vision; psychedelics and neuroplasticity; beliefs and prior probabilities; the interaction between psychedelics and meditation; the risks and benefits of psychedelics, Harris' recent experience with MDMA; non-duality; love, gratitude, and bliss; the self model; the Buddhist concept of emptiness; human flourishing; effective altruism, and other topics.
You also can hear the first part of their discussion on YouTube. And seemingly all of it if you sign up for a certain YouTube channel.
Now, on to a necessarily brief rundown of some tips that Clark shares in his book. These aren't new by any means, but they take on a different flavor when viewed through the lens of the predictive process theory.
One that especially resonated with me is realistic optimism.
The common idea, taking us all the way from short-term motor control to long-term goal-directed action, is that we are pulled along by our own highly predicted future states -- such as the state of drinking the coffee, arriving at that airport on time, or improving my surfing skills. This in turn requires a kind of informed optimism.
We must at some level strongly predict that we will occupy the states that we can plausibly attain and that best realize our goals. We will then act in ways designed to eliminate errors calculated relative to the optimistic-yet-realistic prediction that those goals are achieved. Realistic optimism is thus the order of the day.
...[Predictive processing] suggests that the way we see and experience the world is quite routinely shaped and guided by our own (often unconscious) predictions and expectations
Then there's expecting relief, which includes placebos.
Since experience is always shaped by our own expectations, there is an opportunity to improve our lives by altering some of those expectations, and the confidence with which they are held. For as we have seen again and again, it is only confident predictions (even if they are ones hidden from conscious view) that get to exert a real grip on the shape of human experience.
...Confidence in a given intervention reflects our confidence in the person (and the larger establishment) offering it, but also the nature of the intervention itself. Injections and surgeries, being considered relatively "powerful" interventions, clearly demonstrate this effect... Remarkably, patients receiving the placebo surgery reported similar amounts of relief as those undergoing normal surgery.
...A fascinating range of cases involves the use of "honest placebos." In these cases, potent predictions of relief can still be activated despite the person knowing perfectly well that there is no standard or clinically active ingredient present.
The power of self-affirmation is real.
Just as placebos and rituals can impact the deep prediction engines that sculpt human experience, so too can verbal interventions of various kinds. Cases in point include the strings of comforting words uttered by someone well-trusted (for example, in the context of talk therapy), but also the words we ourselves use, either actually uttered or in inner monologues, to frame our own thinking.
In these and many other ways, the careful use of language has the capacity to reach into the heart of the experience machine. A well-studied example is the positive, performance-enhancing power role of self-affirmation.
...We also can use words to frame and reframe our own experiences and anxieties. This is another potent tool whose powers and mechanisms can now be better understood. For example, consider that prickly rush of adrenaline so often felt before going onstage or delivering a speech. We can practice attending to that feeling while verbally reframing it as a sign of our own chemical readiness to deliver a good performance. This can lead to more relaxed and fluent behavior.
Lastly, meditation and the control of attention.
Properly used, psychedelic drugs offer a way to step back from our usual daily doubts and self-concerns, providing what has been described as "holiday from the self."
This is also one of the key effects of meditation, a practice that likewise quiets the ego, as evidenced both by verbal reports and by dampened neuronal responses in areas (such as the default mode network) associated with introspective self-consciousness -- the same areas in which activity was seen to be dampened by the action of the psychedelic drugs.
It is unsurprising then that the meditative route to the effects is itself now being understood using the tools and constructs of predictive processing. Focused-attention meditation provides a good example. In focused-attention meditation, practitioners learn to maintain attention on a single object such as the breath.
In predictive processing terms, upping the precision on that sole reliable object inevitably results in dropping the precision assigned to all other states, effectively down-weighting all the rest of the information flowing in from the senses. Once this skill is acquired, thoughts, memories, and sensations can also arise without capturing attention.
This means they can be experienced in a way that is helpfully disengaged from our normal tendencies to react and respond. A bodily itch or a disturbing thought may still arise, but it is not experienced as an immediate call to action, such as scratching or rumination.