How your brain constructs experience


Awareness: Productivity

Perception gets constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed as the body evolves in relationship to its environment. It can update itself based on reconciling prediction errors, or it can project itself into the world through action.

Part 2 models at how the different elements of experience might interact within the predictive theory. Its point is not to perfectly capture real-world complexity, but step outside of the system and actually see its mechanics at work. It's high-level awareness that reveals leverage points, so we can be intentional with our experience and behaviour.

Let’s consider three things we might want to improve with intention:

  • Relationship to the self
  • Relationship to others
  • Relationship to productivity

Relationship to productivity

We’ll consider productivity as the ability to actualise thought into action, imagination into result.

Prototypically, this happens through a runway feedback loop of thoughts producing actions that feed into new thoughts and so on.

The productivity process takes on a different structure in each uniquely different brain. We all develop our own habitual way of being productive, mirroring who we are as persons — the self. But while personal algorithms differ, the principle is the same: creating a straight path from thought to action.

Habits are great at executing tasks, but counterproductive for what makes work “great”: creativity. Quantity matters, but it’s quality that makes a difference. One is optimising existing ways for greater quantity (efficiency), the other is coming up with novel, better ways (effectiveness) altogether.

For productivity, linearity is both a strength and a weakness. The more you focus on increasing input-to-output conversion in the moment, the less attention is left for making new connections. True creativity is non-linear, born not out of focused but wandering attention. You can’t predict how it’s going to work beforehand and trace steps to it. It happens spontaneously and suddenly when intuition can freely play around in chaos — the very thing structure aims to minimise.

You've probably noticed how your best ideas come to you not when you’re trying to come up with them, but randomly in the shower, doing housework, gardening or taking a walk — precisely because you’re not trying to come up with ideas. It’s a relaxed, undemanding way of being that leaves room for intuition to self-organise the chaos, making non-linear connections.

We'll split the two dimensions of productivity as (1) goal-oriented work and (2) relaxed creativity, then marry them together in (3) flow.

Relationship to goal-oriented work

To improve your relationship to goal-oriented work, focus on imagination and attention.

Define and simulate a vision, then trace actionable steps needed from future back to the present. This’ll instil a deeper certainty of what you want, to guide your predictions and actions going forward.

Contrasting future vision with the present channels your attention to purposefully learn new things as you co-evolve with the new reality you’re actualising. Your imagination pulls your attention to itself in an actionable way.

Imagination creates a vision that pulls attention towards itself within an actionable channel.

Now, goals are constrained within the channel traced back from your vision, i.e. the product of creativity. As you purposefully work and learn towards that vision goal by goal, you build creative capacity for a better one.

To harness it, step away, out of the channel, and give your updated intuition a chance to make new non-linear connections by inviting relaxed creativity. You might come up with better ideas that bypass tons of linear work within the previous paradigm.

Sometimes, the most productive thing to do is to not try to be productive.

From time to time, step outside of the productivity channel so to creatively harness what you've learned into better visions.

Relationship to relaxed creativity

To improve your relationship with relaxed creativity, focus on sensation and intuition.

Carve out purposeless pockets of time and space for your intuition to pick up new connections in new sensory environments. This is the opposite of goal-oriented work. Without goals (thought) commanding attention, the brain can freely chase novelty on top of what it assumes to already now. Through prediction errors, novel sense data non-linearly integrates with existing concepts, subjecting new ideas to thought as they evolve.

“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”  — Ray Bradbury

For example, I invite relaxed creativity through walks, showers, housework, cooking and gardening. These are activities the body can do without much thought, leaving attention to freely wander and pick up on novelty for intuition to play with.

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Flow: Goal-oriented creativity

Goal-oriented work and relaxed creativity are seemingly at odds with each other, as the first structures attention and the second diffuses it.

But there’s a sweet spot.

At the edge of order and chaos, we can achieve a flow state: a minimum viable structure that fends off ineffectual distractions while retaining enough room for intuition to self-organise chaos into creativity.

Optimal human experience

Flow is a magical sort of state, found out as the “optimal human experience” by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi after decades of researching high-achieving people. In his words:

“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Sitting at the edge of self (order) and selflessness (chaos), flow is felt as a total experience of the unfiltered present moment. It augments both emotion and thought, syncing them in the core unit of consciousness: attention. Whatever you are feeling and thinking feels much richer.

In flow, you choose what you pay attention to, not some distraction. You feel naturally happy without thought and grow in complexity, merely by virtue of being active towards where your mind is focused.

Matching mood to momentum

According to Csikszentimihalyi, flow comes when an activity feels both sufficiently difficult and sufficiently possible. If it’s too difficult, we get anxious. If it’s too easy, we get bored.

It’s also about the psychic energy we have available. What is difficult and easy changes throughout the day as our thoughts, feelings, moods, interactions and environments change — much of it subject to body budget levels (food, water, glucose, electrolytes, sleep).

Optimising for flow starts with matching your focus to the content at any given moment. If you have four hours, you sit down to write, but if you only have twenty minutes, you send emails. Better yet; if you don’t have the clearheadedness to write, you pick something that better matches your mood.

By proactively context-switching to match psychic energy with task, you become an architect of how you distribute attention to the environment. This process is conducive to creativity because it’s messy and non-linear, yet it still respects the output. It prioritises quality without neglecting quantity, and as such maximises productivity.

Minimum viable structure

The challenge of flow is to create a structure that minimises wasteful distraction (goal-oriented) but not so much it can’t context-switch in function of available psychic energy.

This is where intrinsic personal goals come in. Goals not based on external rewards they bring, but on values that give you a sense of conviction about your place in the world. Such goals are an extension of your self and living them is, in fact, self-expression: the reward is the act itself.

For example, I write to think and learn better by indulging in my curiosity; hopefully creating meaning for and connection with others in the process. It is selfish self-expression more than anything else: something I naturally want to do regardless of the external rewards.

Value-based goals are habits at the level of belief: they trace a purposeful, dynamic scope for flow to happen at the level of experience. The balance is struck: enough structure for order while enough space for the brain to non-linearly organise its way through chaos. For this to work, you need to deeply feel and believe the goal. In some sense, bet your life on it.

As Csikszentmihalyi puts it:

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to themselves. They have to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Intrinsic goals focus chaos around your self as you move through it. They trace a dynamic structure through chaos without reducing creative potential.

Here’s how I practically apply a minimum viable structure for writing flow.

Writing is my scope and within it, I switch contexts to match my psychic energy levels.

  • In the mornings, I’ll typically sit down and actually write, surfing the creative flow following restful sleep.
  • When I feel stuck, I’ll step away from my desk to do some housework, shower, cook or take a walk — so to let my intuition play with ideas in the background of my wandering attention. Later, I'll come back to write with a fresh perspective.
  • As soon as I find myself forcing to keep writing, I’ll move on to more linear client work (I freelance) that pays the bills. This enables me more time to write later.
  • In the evenings, I’ll shift from creating to consuming, reading and listening to books (or podcasts) — possibly while walking or alike. More input for the mind to run away with and refill overall creative inspiration.
  • Throughout the day, I’ll optimise food (low-carb and fasting), activity (walking, workouts) and sleep (unwinding, rhythm) for clear thinking. I'll flow across all of these things within the purposeful scope of writing well.

Rather than goals being an end in themselves, they become a means to experience flow. As such, they marry the noun to the verb, the being to the doing.

A change in perspective

Understanding how different elements interact to shape perception and experience is a powerful way to take control of your life.

The computer scientist Alan Kay once said:

"A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points." — Alan Kay

That's what happens when we step outside our sense of self to update the assumptions that guide it in the world. Through awareness of its parts, we can better rhyme the flow of our internal systems with the reality and other brains around us — intentionally evolving in harmony as we go.

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