Recently I read the the book “How Emotions are Made” by Lisa Feldman Barrett. She is a researcher and professor of neuroscience at Northeastern University. In the book, she discusses what emotions are from a biological standpoint. One of the most fascinating things I learned from the book is the how much of our actions and reactions are based on future predictions. Even much of what we process in our visual cortex is based on predictions. Your brain has a literal neural network dedicated to predicted vision, much like a machine learning system. Cars passing, people walking by, birds flying are all part of the external movements that your brain is predicting. Think about that for a sec - all those normal sights isn’t what you’re seeing. It’s what you think you’re seeing. It’s prediction.
Unlike what I first thought, we don’t process what we see from our surroundings on a frame by frame basis. We don’t see our environment, we attempt to understand it. Most of the work of understanding our environment is done through the past experiences we have had. For example, take the perspective of a person sitting on a bench, outdoors near a sidewalk. Presumably, you’ve done this before. You can probably imagine what the bench feels like as you’re imagining yourself sitting on it. Maybe the bench feels cold and it’s made of metal, or perhaps it’s made of wooden slats and bolts. This would depend on your prior experiences sitting on benches. But these former experiences subconsciously form a prediction. And when reality deviates from that prediction, an emotion is constructed, which then leads to an action or reaction.
Our past experiences guide us, and keep us alive. Every time our brain makes a predictive error, we learn from it, subconsciously. And this tinkers our future predictions. Let’s think of a completely hypothetical scenario where all your experiences of sitting of a metal bench have been on cloudy days. This could be because you, hypothetically, grew up in Vancouver where it’s typically not very sunny and not very warm. But then, hypothetically, you move to California and sit on a metal bench without much thought until you feel the searing pain of the metal seat conducting the heat from the direct sunlight directly to your thighs. It would probably cause a jolting reaction of surprise and shock. In hindsight though, it may seem obvious, but this action/reaction emotional sequence was created from subconscious prediction error, created entirely by your past experiences. And because of this prediction error, metal benches may feel less welcoming in the future.
Prediction is also necessary because our brains do not have the capacity to be analyzing all our incoming senses and visual feed, frame by frame, at all times. It would simply be too slow to survive. We use prediction to fully understand our environment and determine appropriate actions from past experiences so that we can function more efficiently. If we find prediction to be one extreme end of the spectrum where our brains are algorithmically tuning our experiences based on the past, the opposite end of this spectrum would be presence. Presence is when we try to shut out these predictions, consciously, and rely entirely on our senses in the current moment in time. Presence in an actionable form would also be known as meditation.