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Believing is Seeing

Consider this: you’re in a crowded area and completely miss a close friend or family member? Or looking for that kitchen utensil – impossible to find in the drawer – then it appears five minutes later when you weren’t looking for it? Or about to merge into traffic and … “sh*t – where did that cyclist come from?” Why do you not see what’s in front you at times?

But, are you ever seeing what is in front of you, or are you simply seeing your expectations of what’s in front of you? This question is central to the idea of Predictive Processing – that moment to moment you are making predictions about what should be happening. Perhaps you really are living in The Matrix, but one of your own creation 😉

The theory is built around answering ‘what is the most efficient way that your brain can cope with the vast amount of information coming through your senses every second?’ It’s been gaining traction in the neuroscience world over the past decade or so and it closely links to the insights coming from 2500 years of meditation tradition.

Just tell me the news

Spend a moment here to open to all of the sounds, touch sensations, smells, feeling of hot and cold, sense of balance, the various impressions coming through your muscles and organs. There’s a lot going on. This is without even considering the sense of sight!

To cope with this vast array of sense experience, your brain incessantly builds predictive models, or stunningly nuanced expectations, of what any sense should be registering in your current environment. If the model is correct, well, no need to take notice of the sense input any more – you know what is going on.

It’s only if the model is slightly off, that you need to pay attention. It’s only the mismatches (given the jargon term ‘prediction error’) that need to be fed from the senses to higher up into the brain. From the brain’s perspective, just tell me the news.

… even reading builds predictions …

Context is everything

How do you respond to a touch on the shoulder? It depends. It could be part of a deeply relaxing massage; or unwanted attention, the start of a physical threat; or it could be entwined in some intimate contact with a partner. Same tactile sensation, totally different contexts. Context tells you what to expect.

Did you watch your mind building stories, images and feelings in response to the above scenarios? That’s part of the predictive process – endlessly pre-building sets of expectations – to help you be better prepared for what’s coming up.

Where does prediction begin?

The Jesuits were on track when they claimed “give me a child until they are seven, and I will have them for life”.

The brain is hard wired to create predictions, but the raw material that it works from is shaped and patterned in the early years of life. In those formative years you are learning how to move your body, your mother tongue, how to relate to care givers, and so on. All of those repeated trainings give you the foundational models that are used for the rest of your life.

This highlights how any deficits in care, or trauma, or just the trials of navigating through school life can profoundly shape someone’s view. And more importantly, the shaping becomes embedded into nearly every perception from then on. It becomes a part of them. Nurture is nature.

Lazy as

We’re all primed to be lazy. In millennia past, we had to exercise to get food – the nuts and berries didn’t harvest themselves! Now, if the fridge is full, why exercise? That’s the bane of public health experts 🙄

But, in a similar way, we do the same mentally. If you’ve got a good model of what’s happening, it’s far less effort to run on autopilot than actually pay careful attention. That’s how you nearly hit cyclists on the road – looking for ‘car’ shapes, not ‘cyclist’ shapes.  That mental shortcut can cost a life.

Mindfulness = paying attention

This brings us to one of the links with meditation. The 2500-year-old practice of ‘mindfulness’ is actually a training to consciously redirect attention to your senses. You’re deliberately letting the assumptions (the predictive models) rest a bit more in the background, bringing sense experience to the foreground. It’s a training, it’s not automatic. The benefit is being more engaged with what is happening right now, less living in memory. Living, rather than remembering.

The Buddhist insight practices reveal prediction is at the core of the mind

On a deeper level, the advanced practices of Insight provide the tools to unwind the whole predictive architecture – to capture a moment of being with sense experience with no prior models. Even further, they illuminate how our experience of anything is intricately entwined with a prior expectation – literally seeing the predictive processing model in action – observing how the beliefs shape what you see. Believing is seeing!

In my next blog we’ll look at how this applies to emotion. More to come!

John Burston
Lifeflow Director of Teaching

Find out more – classes and practical

Explore Mindfulness in depth in our Mindfulness Meditation Level 2 module 

And we also cover the Mindfulness and Insight practices in Level 3 and Level 4.

The longer 7-day retreats are where you can build the foundation to open up these experiences, plus our Members Retreats.

Find out more – books

For an easy to read introduction to the Predictive Processing ideas, try Goldstein, E B, 2020, The Mind – Consciousness, Prediction, and the Brain

For an in-depth exploration of the questions, with numerous links to the research, try Clark, A, 2016, Surfing Uncertainty – Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind (available in the Lifeflow Member’s Library at our Studio)

And for a detailed coverage of the theory, try Hohwy, J, 2013, The Predictive Mind (available in the Lifeflow Member’s Library at our Studio)

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