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 goal-oriented work
Relationship to self
Part I modelled how baby brains mature.
At first, brains rely on sensations only to learn what (not) to do for health and survival. Caretakers help contextualise what these sensations mean in given contexts so the brain gains control and agency. I learn to be calm when my parents are calm and anxious when they are anxious. As we develop faculties for language, we come to conceptualise these sensations as emotions.
Over time, emotions solidify in a foundation of memory that enables the brain to start predicting more and reacting less, to save energy. Because prediction guides experience from what we already know, patterns of interpretation and habit become rigid intuition. We get used and attached to feeling, thinking, and behaving certain ways in certain contexts. The self emerges from these self-reinforcing loops of memory, habit and interpretation.
Maturation is inherently bumpy. We all get moulded by what we go through in life — good and bad. No matter how great your parents and childhood, you inevitably pick up some "stuff" along the way. From within the foundation of your self, this stuff may propagate into misguided cycles of interpretation and habit that consistently lead you astray.
Addiction ↔ growth
People typically handle their baggage in one of two ways: they either shrink away or lean in.
- Shrinking away leads to addiction — a habit of seeking short-term escape — and only feeds the destructive loops. Instead of dealing with trauma, we seek release in substances, consumption, relationships and/or cycles of resentment, anger and self-pity. Whatever it is, the object of addiction becomes a crutch, bound to eventually break under pressure.
- Leaning in leads to growth. It is to check your self and deconstruct the pattern onto its root memory so the dysfunctional habit can be un- or re-learned from the ground-up. There is no way around trauma; it needs to be faced, interpreted and acted on for change. Every time we do that in a way that affirms life, we create a piece of ourselves that wasn't there before.
Nassim Taleb would call the first state fragile (harmed by disorder) and the second anti-fragile (gains from disorder).
To improve the relationship to the self, focus on thoughts and memory through awareness.
You can do this by introspecting destructive thought loops and tracing them back to the memories that trigger them. From memories, you can understand the root cause of your emotions. From there, you can do two things:
- First, you can work on changing the habit from a re-interpretation of its underlying memory.
- Second, you can change thoughts patterns by changing how you talk to your self.
The change of habit helps you deal better with the same problem in the future. The change of thoughts help you break out of the loop to start learning healthier ones.
It’s as important to forget as it is to remember. The past provides necessary continuity, but some chains of interpretation are better broken.
Awareness subjects prediction loops working in the background of the self to conscious thought so you can set intentions for changing them.
Intention is the hard limit of thought: change itself can only manifest through action. Without actualising them in new behaviour, new intentions just create new thinking loops on top of unchanged intuition. You cannot think your way out of thinking.
The brain updates internal models by correcting prediction errors fed back to it from the environment. It learns through new information that violates what it knows. Such novelty is only found doing new things in new contexts. You need to put your self out there to be proven wrong.
Change is hard because it requires payment of metabolic resources the brain was naturally selected to save. Thought can add the long-term perspective that learning pays compounding metabolic returns, as internal models gain greater predictive reach. You grow more effective in more contexts with less energy.
Change and learning becomes easier the more you do it.
Firstly, because knowledge compounds: existing knowledge provides greater contextual scaffolding for new knowledge to integrate with.
Secondly, because the brain comes to recognise the long-term metabolic gains of challenging itself and reorients its its energy efficiency model around it. To seek out novelty rather than avoid it becomes hardwired intuition. The more habitual your curiosity, the less intention and energy it takes, the more naturally it happens.
As your predictions compound reach, you feel comfortable in a wider diversity of contexts and have more energy left over for curiosity, actively seeking out prediction errors.
The flywheel gets flipped on its head. You dance with chaos rather than shy away from it. In the process, you evolve in complexity: more attuned to contextual diversity, more differentiated in personality.
You are your choices
In philosophical terms, intention carried by thought can be considered a source of free will.
Initially, our brains wire themselves to the surroundings they're born into — physical, social, cultural. You have, in fact, no say over the models and concepts you inherit. These determine your first predictions, experiences, behaviours and initial self-development.
As you grow up however, you gain agency over how, where and with whom you spend your time. What you pay attention to. Through awareness and intention, you can deliberately seek out new experiences, contexts, people, media and ideas so to evolve your internal models and the predictions they guide. The choices you make trace the path of who you become.
"Day by day, what you do is who you become." — Heraclitus
As the brain predicts from memory, your past determines your present. You can't change that past and who you are today, but you can change your present and, through it, who you become tomorrow. By being intentional in the present you can cultivate your past as a means to control your future.
You aren't responsible for the models you were given, but you are responsible for the models you have now.