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We are prediction machines

We live in the future - our predictions about what will happen to us determine everything we do, including how happy we are...

We are already there

In the previous post, we looked at our social nature, and how our positive and negative emotions – what I called Surface Happiness – have been designed to help us meet our needs for survival and connection. In this post, we will go beyond what simply feels good and bad in the moment, and look at the other half of the equation: as well as being social animals, we are also sophisticated prediction machines.

To say we are prediction machines is to claim that we live in the future. Whenever we act a certain way, say something, enter into a new situation, or whatever – we have already made a prediction about how that will go. Not a moment goes by without us anticipating what it will be like. This is not to say we don’t get things wrong – we do, all the time, and that is largely what we pay attention to. But we are constantly trying to minimise the gap between how we expect the world to be and how we end up experiencing it. One way of putting this point is that we never really see reality for what it is – we only see our best guess of it, and we’re trying to improve this guess at any given moment, throughout our lives.

This is the insight of Predictive Processing Theory (PPT), an emerging unified theory of mind, which has reached near consensus amongst cognitive scientists. According to PPT, it is always more efficient to anticipate an experience before we have it and then only pay attention to the bits we didn’t anticipate to happen. We intuitively experience this in our daily lives: for example, when walking to work down a busy street, we largely filter out the predictable noises, smells and textures (and people!) that would entirely captivate an infant, or, in the form of a puddle, delight a small child. Only an unexpectedly loud or threatening noise, disgusting smell or attractive person may shift our attention away from our inner thoughts. In fact, daydreaming is another way in which, whenever we don’t have anything to focus on in particular, we spend our attention and energy trying to more accurately predict the future – constantly combining fragments of memories in new ways, running tests in our minds about what might happen to us and how we might deal with it.

Although PPT is often presented as a unified theory of how our mind works, as I am presenting it here, it has gained popularity partly due to its merits at describing a number of key features of the mind, such as vision, language, and decision making. (As an excellent and slightly mind-blowing example of how our predictions influence our understanding of speech, check out this video on “sine-wave speech” – it involves a test, which begins at 1.14, and really has to be experienced to be believed – oh, and it’ll only work once…)

Instead of reviewing this work, which would take way too much of our time, I want to pick a few examples of how PPT makes us think differently about how our mind works in general. To begin with a silly example, consider tickling. We all know that we can’t tickle ourselves, but why is that? Well, the received wisdom is actually wrong. We can tickle ourselves; we just need to catch ourselves off guard. Turns out we can do this by controlling a mechanical hand, which imitates the movements of our own hand, and crucially delays them by a fraction of a second. Without this time delay, we too accurately predict the movements of the mechanical hand, and feel nothing. But with the delay in time, we can finally surprise ourselves, and the results send us crazy.

Beyond tickling, viewing ourselves as prediction machines has the potential to cast a new light on a number of things we do. Consider various basic features of the mind and body, such as hunger and fatigue. The most obvious way of thinking about these things is that we are hungry when we need nutrition, and we are tired when we no longer have any energy. But, to a predictive mind, this need not be the case. As long as we anticipate that, in our current situation, we will need nutrition soon, and that, if we keep on doing what we are doing, we will run out of energy, we will then feel hungry and tired. We may not need nutrition right now, and we may still have plenty of energy left – but, when it comes to how we actually feel, our predictions can override our immediate circumstances.

The same principle can be seen in cases of mental fatigue and failures of self-control. If we anticipate that we are unable to do something, for whatever reason, our motivation to do so diminishes. This makes total sense insofar as our predictions are accurate. Unfortunately, however, a lot of subtle and unconscious cues can influence our expectations of what we can and cannot do. A well-known phenomenon in social psychology called “Stereotype Threat” involves people living up to stereotypes that others may have towards them. For instance, girls have been shown to perform worse in maths tests if they are reminded of their gender simply by having to write their names on their exam paper beforehand. A large literature of moral psychology called “Situationism” has shown that, in general, if people are made to think of themselves as a kind and helpful person, they will tend to act accordingly. Unfortunately, the same goes for the opposite: if we don’t believe we can help – perhaps because nobody else around us seems to be doing so – then we wont.

As a final example, our largely unconscious and automatic predictions may influence our health. You may have encountered having a cold after a particularly stressful time, rather than during it. It’s as if your body decides (or anticipates) that it can now safely switch into healing (rest-and-digest) mode. Well, this may not be so far off from the truth. Healing is a costly process, and may not actually be the sensible option if we’ve got work to do – better, instead, to stay in action (fight-or-flight) mode. The well-known Placebo Effect may be a result of this mechanism – anticipating when it is safe, or makes sense, to switch from action to healing. Indeed, it is possible that part of the ageing process is our mind and body anticipating it is no longer worth devoting as much energy to the healing process. This is perhaps why things such as having loving relationships or meaningful goals – things that have, until recently, been relatively ignored by modern medicine – can have such a big impact on people’s overall health and longevity. When we have these things to live for, we can reasonably predict that staying alive and healthy will not just be possible, but also worth the effort.

It’s at this point that we can come back to the function of happiness. In the previous post, I claimed that our positive and negative emotions help us meet our needs for survival and connection. In this post, I have hoped to show that it is not just currently meeting our needs that matters to us. What matters, from the point of view of our predictive minds, is whether we are likely to meet our needs both now and in the foreseeable future.

This is where our moods come in. We may feel good or bad on the surface, yet have an underlying sense of connection or disconnection with the world. Our moods are based on our predictions of how well our needs will be met in the future. Things may be going well now, but in general the world may feel like a threatening, confusing and lonely place. Conversely, things may currently be going badly for us, but we may still anticipate a future abundant with opportunities, safety and connection.

There is a huge different between someone who feels one way or the other. Someone in a depressed mood, for instance, may feel a sense of contraction or dullness, and find it hard to see value in themselves or their life projects. In contrast, someone in an expansive mood may feel comfortable in their own body, at peace with those around them, and inspired by their circumstances. This difference cannot be overstated. In contrast to Surface Happiness, our underlying moods colour the way we see, think and act in the world.

Over any given period of time, the positive and negative moods we experience make up what I call Underlying Happiness. Underlying Happiness is determined by how likely we are to meet our needs in the foreseeable future. Its function is to make sure we meet our needs in ever more predictable ways.

As sophisticated prediction machines, our motivation to meet our needs with ever more certainty and security never goes away. Whether we like it or not, we live in the future – in an anticipated reality that will never come.

3 suggestions for further reading:

  • Andy Clarke: Surfing Uncertainty

  • Dan Haybron: The Pursuit of Unhappiness

  • Martin Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy Baumeister, Chandra Sripanda: Homo Prospectus

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