Prediction Error Minimisation

Prediction Error Minimisation

In the summer of 2021, I read my way through How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett. It was something of a shock to my system. The ideas presented there were startling in their clarity, but surprisingly, startling in their similarity to what I had witnessed in terms of practices aimed at Awakening.

In her book, Feldman Barrett describes the Prediction Error Minimisation (PEM) theory, which attempts to explain how the brain functions. The suggestion is that, rather than us directly perceiving things around us, we actually perceive primary sensory input (light, sound, etc), and then a suite of neural activities constructs experience from it. When I sit in my room and look around, I see a desk, a monitor, a chair. But PEM suggests that what is actually happening is that my brain takes in light from my eyes, then engages in a rapid pattern matching process, seeking similar patterns in my memory. When it finds a match, it makes a prediction as to what is in front of me. To me, those predictions don’t feel like predictions, they feel like truth. The neural processes are that fast, and that convincing, our constructed world appears concrete and sacrosanct to us.

Yet, sometimes, these predictions aren’t actually correct. Or rather, don’t serve as a sufficiently accurate prediction to be functionally useful. Take the classic scenario of when we see a snake - and we panic - our body tightens. Then we look again, and we realise it was a stick. Instantly we relax. This is called a “prediction error”. Our brain has received additional information that has caused it to make an alternative prediction. “It isn’t a snake, it is a stick.”

Prediction Error Minimisation theory suggests that the brain optimises for minimal prediction error.

Feldman Barrett goes on to extend the theory, applying it to emotions. Here, she notes that instead of perceiving light, we perceive sensations from our interoceptive sense - a panoply of sensations felt within the body, be it temperature, movement or emotional sensations. During our upbringing, we our caregivers helped train us in terms of how to interpret these interoceptive sensations: we gradually learned to categories them. Just as I also learned to categorise that array of brown and blue as a chair.

I found this description of emotion to have a surprising correlation to my own experience of emotion, and particularly the experience of applying inquiry to the sensations of those emotions. I remember an occasion in which I was sitting in my car, a significant relationship having just ended. I was in a reasonable state of despair. I mentioned this to a friend who was guiding me in my inquiry. She asked me to look in my experience for “missing her”. For what was probably just a minute or two, I closed my eyes, and looked inside. What I saw was like an iron bar of tension, from the base of my stomach all the way up to the top of my chest. Completely to my surprise, I could not find “missing her”. It just wasn’t there. I switched on my car, and drove home.

So why make a big deal about this experience? Because it had such a big impact on my life afterwards. It was as if I processed the whole relationship in that one moment. I didn’t experience the same pain again. It offered me an insight into an interesting way of approaching, and processing emotion.

What it showed me, I now see, is that we can apply PEM to our inner life. My brain had categorised the sensation of an extremely tight stomach as “missing her”. So I suffered. Then, when I looked, my brain saw that this was incorrect. It came up with a new prediction: a bar of tightness up my front. Although unpleasant, this prediction didn’t cause me to suffer in the same way. It wasn’t laden with the same meaning.

Direct Pointing can be seen as a practice that is aimed at triggering a prediction error event. We choose an aspect of our experience, could be an emotion, could be our sense of “me”, then we direct attention to that experience. What makes it up? How do we know we are experiencing it? Knowing that what we are experiencing is, by the nature of our mind, a prediction, we engage in the attempt to validate that prediction. (Direct pointing often aims to invalidate, but I prefer to aim to validate, then fail!). As our attention becomes more nuanced (meditation helps here) and we notice more and more aspects of this experience, we may notice that the prediction we originally made cannot hold any longer. Our brain notices a prediction error and makes another prediction. This adjustment causes what people often call a “shift”. Some form of shift in experience happens. Just as happened to me when I stopped experiencing grief at the end of a relationship.

In her later book, Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain, Feldman Barrett explains how the brain also synthesises or combines predictions. I see a chair, a desk, a monitor, a speaker, and my brain summarises that all into “my room”. This process of summarisation happens at level after level. I summarise many rooms into “my house”, and so on.

This same process happens internally. I predict these sensations into the emotion of “anxiety”. Then, I predict continuity, having experienced this anxiety before. I predict connections between this experience of anxiety and other activities in my life (e.g. studies). Ultimately, I predict that all of these underlying assumptions mean that there is a “me”. A solid, unified, continued identity.

If we apply this Direct Pointing practice to our inner life, at the lowest level, we might cause a small shift in terms of our brain’s prediction regarding that experience. But, that small shift might have larger consequences. If that prediction formed the basis of a higher level prediction, the higher level prediction will be impacted. Our brain may be forced to form another prediction. Persist with this sufficiently long, and the stack, all the way up to this prediction of “me” may crumble, leading to a significant shift in experience, and typically a significant reduction in suffering.

This post is not in any way intended as a manual. It is rather intended to show how profoundly applicable Prediction Error Minimisation theory is to the inner life and the practices that people commonly talk about as Awakening or the like.

The Odoki Method is my attempt at providing guidance for people in triggering these prediction error events and consequent shifts.

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