How your brain constructs experience


Déjà vu

The young man was drafted against his will. Ordered to hunt down the same guerrilla fighters who were his comrades just months before.

Now, he found himself deep in the wilderness doing practice drills with his new squadron when, suddenly, he spotted rustling in the bushes.

His heart pounding in his throat, he saw a formation of camouflaged guerrillas looming with AK-47s ready to burst.

Instinctively, he raised his rifle, flipped the safety and aimed.

“Don’t shoot.”

A hand on his shoulder.

“It’s just a boy."

He lowered the rifle, looked again, and was dumbfounded by what he saw: a ten-year old boy herding cows. Not with an AK-47, but with a stick.

The soldier shared his story with neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, who recounts it in her latest book.

“What is wrong with my brain?”

He was desperate to understand how he could have mis-seen what was right in front of him and nearly killed a child.

There was nothing wrong with his brain. It had worked exactly as it should have.

The red pill

How would you react if someone told you your day-to-day experience is, in fact, a carefully controlled hallucination?

This would sound familiar if you've seen The Matrix. But what if this was science’s version of your reality?

One of the great emerging theories in neuroscience is predictive processing. It asserts that the brain predicts large swaths of experience from memory before it happens, rather than construct it from what you see, smell, hear and feel as it happens. This saves energy that can be focused as attention on new, uncertain elements in the environment.

The soldier’s brain predicted guerrilla fighters from matching earlier experiences so he could react quicker. If the shepherd boy really had been a guerrilla, the seconds he won predicting the scene rather than reacting after fully perceiving could have saved his life. The prediction was wrong, but killing the child as a result — tragic as it would have been — wouldn’t hurt him biologically. The predictive brain wins at natural selection with metabolic efficiency.


This post looks at how brain and body construct how you experience yourself within the world in every wakeful moment.

Experience is a real-time product of many different parts interacting together in a system too complex to finely model. Instead, the focus is to simplify without straying from scientific lines. We're stepping outside the system to see its mechanics at work and identify leverage points. So we can be more effectively intentional about what we want to improve.

  • Part 1 lays the neuroscientific groundwork with the brain's central principle of predictively processing experience for metabolic efficiency.
  • Part 2 maps how different experiential elements interact within the predictive model: emotions, intuition, attention, thought, memory, imagination, self, awareness and action.
  • This sketch serves as model for how we can leverage awareness to improve relationships to our selves [Part 3], others [Part 4] and productivity+creativity [Part 5].


The predictive brain

Rather than perceive reality and react, brains predict and correct.

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