So a few months ago I moved into a new apartment with two friends of mine, or rather one friend and the other guy we simply picked up along the way. But he turned out to be a really good friend as well so that was great. Anyway, we moved into this truly beautiful apartment and it had a pretty nice kitchen. The only problem I had with this kitchen was that I kept on slamming the cupboards doors. Now why was that? You know how you swing doors around with your flat hand and then catch them at the handle to gently close them? Yeah that was my intention but the only problem was, I had been living all my life with cupboard handles that were horizontal and these were suddenly vertical. So that took quite a few slams to get used to. I was always reaching into nothingness, trying to grab on to something that wasn’t there. And handles are always on the bottom corner of the side you open the door on, so I didn’t get the space wrong but the handle was simply vertical.
And this expectation that there would be a horizontal handle wasn’t very explicit, it was just a habit I had acquired. I didn’t think hey now I have to grip here to catch the door, it was automatic and done without thinking. But of course I noticed my error as soon as my hand gripped nothing, so I did have an unconscious expectation of what I was going to touch with my hand. It’s not just a habit that I did and which I didn’t know the purpose of. I was always expecting something, predicting something unconsciously. Because there is no error without prediction. You can’t be disappointed if you don’t expect anything. And you only notice all these unconscious expectations when they are violated. You don’t notice how many things your brain is monitoring every second until there is a big error that your unconscious self can’t cope with and it alerts you, the conscious self, to sort out this error. Don’t be too hard on this guy though, he’s doing his best.
Yeah so that’s the tragic story of my kitchen experiencing pain because of the unconscious expectations I had of it. Happens in a lot of other relationships, but that’s a different story. Another cool thing that happened to me, I was getting ready to go to the university and had packed my stuff all ready to go. I had forgotten to put my laptop in my backpack but I hadn’t noticed it yet and this laptop was a hell of a beast, a real huge clunker. So my backpack weighed much less than usual and when I picked it up from the floor I was surprised and actually had the distinct feeling that something was pushing it up from the ground! Like a helium balloon rising up. Of course I soon noticed that there was nothing beneath my backpack and that I had simply forgotten my laptop but I was really intrigued by that split moment where my brain had expected a heavy backpack and then tried to explain the error with the expectation of something pushing from below, which I then also realized was a wrong explanation.
That’s a very interesting fact about ourselves, we are always trying to explain the world around us. Telling ourselves that we know what is going on and that we can predict everything. Because everything we predict and that turns out wrong gives us an error which we have to somehow get rid of. In the case of my backpack my unconscious self was quick to give me the feeling of something pushing from below to explain the ease with which I picked my backpack up. Why didn’t it immediately conclude that my backpack was truly light and that I had forgotten my laptop? Because that required some higher-level thinking and reasoning on my part. The brain is built up in a hierarchy and there are higher expectations and lower expectations operating on a slower/faster time scale depending on how much change there is. So my lower expectations would be something like the movement of my fingers (in The homeostatic brain or Control Systems I talk about how action is simply expected sensory information), which is constantly changing with each word I am typing at the moment. And a higher expectation would be the word I am writing or the concept I am trying to explain. When I am typing a word I don’t think of each individual letter, I think of the whole word and my fingers do the rest. My expectation of which word I want to see stays the same while my lower expectations of where my fingers are change to accommodate this higher expectation. And new sensory information from the world always enters at the bottom of this hierarchy.
So in my example with the backpack my high-level expectation was that my backpack had everything in it as usual and that translated to a lower-level expectation of how much effort I would need to pick it up. As soon as I picked my backpack up there was an error because I needed less effort than expected. And now because sensory information reaches lower-levels first my higher-level expectation that my backpack had everything in it was still a constraint. Therefore my brain first tried to explain this with this constraint still in place. It always tries to resolve errors at the earliest stage possible, only when that doesn’t work does it alert you. So it explained this with the feeling that something must be pushing from below. I then of course quickly realized that this was not the case and then I had to change my higher-level expectation that everything was in my backpack and I realized that my laptop was missing, which explained all of this.
A great experiment you can do at home with a partner that illustrates this phenomenon quite nicely and which I got from Gary Cziko’s book “The Things We Do”, is where you simply stand upright and try to keep your arm stretched out at shoulder height. The job of your partner is to try and push down on your arm. So you have a higher level expectation (a goal) of where you want your arm to be, namely at shoulder height. And every time your friend pushes down on your arm you resist and bring it back to this position. Now the tricky part comes where your job is to keep the arm there but to bring it down to your side as soon as your partner applies pressure on your arm! For this your friend should hold his hand directly above yours and suddenly apply pressure. We might expect this downward pressure to actually help you in bringing down your arm but as you might notice there is that short moment where you resist your friends push because you haven’t realized yet that you have to change your goal from arm at shoulder-height to bringing your arm down to your side. As in the backpack example the first expectation that receives information is the lower-level one, which is keeping your arm at shoulder-height. Only then does this information reach your higher-level expectation which knows to change the lower-level expectation to bringing your arm down to the side.
You can see higher-level expectations as being constraints on lower-level ones. And we will always try to resolve the lower-level ones first before getting to the bottom or should I say top of things. Because the higher ones change much more slowly and reluctantly and therefore take much more effort. We treat symptoms instead of diseases. We take sleeping pills instead of asking why we can’t sleep. We blame others instead of seeing that the problem is us. We try to make the evidence fit our theory no matter what. It took a long time for us to come up with the theory of evolution because we had a constraint that told us humans are special and distinct from all other animals. Higher-level expectations are supposed to be hard to change. It’s how we make sense of the world. Imagine every time your mom turned her face or the lighting were different you would actually stop believing that this is your mom, since the sensory information coming from your retina is different. Your belief, which is a higher-level expectation, that this is still your mom does not change. It gives us a sense of order. That we can predict the world, that things are stable, that things are safe. A revolution, an innovation happens when these beliefs are challenged, when high-level expectations are changed, when things are looked at from an entirely new perspective, when we stop trying to prove something but actually acknowledge that it may not be right. That’s called changing your mind, challenging your cherished beliefs. Okay I’m getting somewhat carried away here but that’s also the beauty of it. Once you’ve found a general principle of the brain you can apply it to so many things. Lower-level expectations change much more readily than higher-level expectations.
Our invisible friend
Let’s get back to some more examples of prediction and expectation. Think of a magician, surprising us with his magic tricks. Rationally of course we know that this is not impossible and not magic but unconsciously we are awed because our expectations are violated. We have very specific knowledge of how things should be in our world and we constantly compare this with how things are. When we see how a magician suddenly produces a bouquet of flowers out of nothing we are surprised because we know that it had to be stored somewhere. But again we do not even need to think these conscious thoughts to be surprised! All these expectations are entirely unconscious. Just as we are intrigued by someone doing a robot dance since we normally move our bodies so fluently and dynamically. But this shows that we have a very clear picture of what is normal and what is not. And we don’t need to know these things in a rational way. Just as no one needs to know about the theory of gravity to know that an object will fall to the ground when it is dropped. We would be very surprised if it suddenly started rising. If objects start floating in the air around you, you are either in space or on a really fucked up acid trip.
The elusive thing about expectation and prediction is that we don’t know about it until we experience an error. We don’t know what we are constantly monitoring unconsciously until our expectations are violated. Only predictions on the highest level are really conscious. Such as thinking about what will happen tomorrow or what somebody is going to say to you. Predictions are a model of the world. A memory of how things work in this world, a memory of how a song plays out, a memory of how a ball flies through the air when it is thrown, a memory of how to snap your fingers, a memory of how you slip on a piece of ice, a memory of how doors are opened. Predictions are how we find our way in this world.