Watch Your Brain Create Reality, a Simple Illustration
To see how our brains construct our interpersonal reality, let’s start with a simple illustration of how our brains continuously predict events in the concrete world.
Imagine you’re blindfolded in your home and placed sitting at the foot of your bed. I give you a task: Make your way to the living room to turn on the TV. Also, imagine that the people you live with haven’t cluttered your house with potential obstacles and hazards. You might impress yourself by doing this relatively quickly and easily. Relative to what you might ask. How about relative to achieving that same goal in my home? How well would you do? (I’d move the fine crystal so you wouldn’t accidentally break it.) I place you at the foot of my bed and give the same instructions: Make your way to the living room to turn on the TV. Not so easy now, is it? But you could do it, eventually.
In your own home, you have a pretty clear mental model of where things are and importantly, where things aren’t (that protruding table corner about shin-high). You also know where the stairs are, and just as important, aren’t. Our always-active brains constantly predict the streams of sensory stimulation before they arrive. Before you even begin, your mind calculates where to turn, when to duck, and where to reach. These determinations establish the safest and fastest path. They help you navigate to the TV remote control. Every time your prediction fails (for instance, your outstretched hand reaches the wall sooner than you expected) you instantly adapt. That’s learning.
Our brains construct simulations of our surroundings by combining incoming sensory data with existing, unconsciously stored memories, beliefs, and concepts. For example, when you come across a closed door, you’d instinctively reach for a doorknob approximately 38 inches from the floor. That’s the same distance from the ground as your home. If you inadvertently entered a bathroom, you’d probably leave without searching for a TV and its remote. (Although this could be an error in my home. Admit it. Who among you has never inadvertently left your TV remote in your bathroom?)
The brain’s primary function is to reduce surprises by developing an increasingly nuanced model of the world. Even though you don’t know me, nor visited my home, you would probably succeed. That’s because you instinctively impose your mental model of a home onto my home. These predictions, generated from your mental model, drive your success. The world of concrete interactions provides reliable feedback. Interpersonal interactions produce fluid and dynamic responses.
Social interactions differ from the world of inanimate objects. When I bump into a wall, the wall doesn’t wonder why I did it. With no consciousness, it can’t act intentionally. Social interactions convey intentions, which in turn demand interpretations. If I bump into a colleague, that act triggers instinctive meaning-making by that colleague: “Was it a playful nudge, an aggressive action, a stumble, or drunkenness.” Your appraisal of that nudge takes milliseconds, then drives your response: laugh, prepare defensives, offer support, or scowl. Assessment and response take automatically, with no conscious agency. You didn’t will it, nor could you stop it.
If you predict an argument with your supervisor, you’ll instinctively ready your defensive posture and muster all the emotional armament needed to survive. It shows on your face, posture, and movement. Your supervisor sees you approach defensively and wonders what you’ve done. You then see the supervisor’s wary gaze and tell yourself, “I knew it.”
Did you predict or create that scenario? In the social sphere, our predictions trigger responses. Practice awareness of your predictions. Mindfulness empowers you to shape your predictions and manage your responses.
Michael Rousell PhD is the author of The Power of Surprise: How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs. He studies life-changing events.
For a free eBook on The Power of Surprise in the Practical NeuroWisdom series, click the link below.