Our brain is the most amazing and most complex organ, controlling most of our activities, interpreting information from the outside world, and manifesting the essence of our mind and soul.
From our birth up until our last breath, the brain continuously receives sense data from our sensory organs. However, these data do not reach the brain as smells, sounds, sights, or any other sensation. What our brain really receives is a mass of light waves and chemicals, which don’t seem to carry a built-in significance. So, how does our brain decode these inputs and figure out a reaction? Well, the brain receives the help of our memories to decipher the situation.
Your brain asks itself in every moment, figuratively speaking, the last time I encountered a similar situation when my body was in a similar state, what did I do next?
Our brain can bring out all our lifelong memories, including everything we’ve seen, heard, experienced, and learned from the outside world, and use them to understand the sensory information that is being received. Our memories encompass not only what happened around us, but also what happened inside our body as a reaction to that. With all this information, the brain comes up with an appropriate action plan for us in order to survive and thrive in a situation.
Moreover, our brain undergoes the same process to produce what we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel, as well. For example, when your heart begins to pound like crazy, in order to identify it as either a feeling of terror or joy, the brain draws yet again from our past experiences. It evaluates the memory and tries to identify the actions and the feelings that accompanied such a bodily reaction in the past. The answer it comes up with becomes our present experience or feeling.
According to Professor Lisa Barrett, our lifelong memory is a critical ingredient in what we see. Let’s look at one of her examples.
What do you see in this image? Only some black lines and a circle?
Let’s give your brain some more information. The image is of a spider that’s doing a handstand. AHA! Now you can see a meaningful image, instead of just black lines and a circle.
With the extra information given, your brain assembled memories from your past to go beyond the visual data in the image and make meaning. Now you see in the image something that you’ve never seen before in your life. That experience was not a sensation from your eyes, but what your brain constructed for you.
What you see is some combination of what’s out there in the world and what’s constructed by your brain. What you hear is also some combination of what’s out there and what’s in your brain, and likewise for your other senses.
In the same manner, what you feel inside your body is also a combination of what is actually happening inside your body and the meanings drawn by your brain with the help of past experiences for those sensations.
After many studies, scientists are now fairly certain that our brain is actually able to sense moment-to-moment changes in the world around us and inside our body before our sense-data reaches our brain. To understand this phenomenon, let’s take the example of drinking a glass of water to quench our thirst. Within seconds of you finishing your glass of water, you start to feel less thirsty. Seems like an ordinary occurrence, right? But according to Professor Barrett, water actually takes about twenty minutes to reach your bloodstream, so it can’t possibly quench your thirst in seconds.
Then how did you feel less thirsty within such a short amount of time? It is through prediction. Professor Barrett says, ‘as your brain plans and executes the actions that allow you to drink and swallow, it simultaneously anticipates the sensory consequences of gulping water, causing you to feel less thirsty long before the water has any direct effect on your blood.’
So, most of the time, these predictions are the factors that transform light into things that we see, air pressure into things we hear, and traces of chemicals into things that we smell and taste. This process is like a conversation that our brain is having with itself. First, your neurons make their best prediction based on memories and other experiences conjured by your brain, and then the sense data from your body and the outside world comes into the conversation, either confirming or denying the prediction that ultimately becomes our reality.
Another important factor that Professor Barrett discusses when it comes to the brain and predictions is that ‘predicting happens backwards from the way we experience it.’ We seem to sense first and act second. But in reality, our brain is wired to prepare for action first and sensing comes second. It simply means our brain is wired to initiate our actions before we are aware of them.
The brain is a predicting organ. It launches your next set of actions based on your past experience and current situation, and it does so outside of your awareness. In other words, your actions are under the control of your memory and your environment.
Let’s consider some actions that we tend to do unconsciously. You are engrossed in a movie and suddenly, you realise that you’ve chomped down a whole packet of Doritos. How did this happen without your awareness? Well, it was launched by the predictive power of your brain.
If you had not developed a taste for Doritos, you would not have eaten a whole packet in one go. Your brain predicted your action based on what you have experienced in the past. So, if somehow you could change your past experiences, your brain would not have predicted the action of eating the whole packet. It is, however, impossible to change our past. But we can make efforts to change our current experiences so that our brain will predict differently in the future.
Let’s take a more serious example. We tend to live in a very polarised world, where these days people find it hard to be civilised with others who have opposing views. However, if you can take time now to carefully consider the topic from the side that you completely disagree with, allowing you to see why a person who is just as smart as you would believe the opposite of what you do, then in the future your brain will predict your actions differently when you are arguing with someone. Instead of shutting the conversation down, you would be able to say, ‘I absolutely disagree with you, but I can understand why you believe what you do’.
With practice, you can make some automatic behaviours more likely than others and have more control over your future actions and experiences than you might think.
So, whether it’s regulating your emotions, changing your eating patterns, or rewiring how your brain approaches arguments, by consciously altering how you react to things in the present, you can change how your brain will automatically react in the future.
If you liked this article, you might like our feature about taking steps to improve your mood each day.