The Experience Machine: How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality
The Experience Machine How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality by Andy Clark has a relatively simple yet amazing core tenet. This tenet can be summarized in several sentences that explode the commonly held belief that has been assumed to be true for centuries.
Almost everyone, including experts in most all areas of brain research have believed that when we see things, hear things, smell things, or touch things our brain is a passive receiver. That is, it takes information coming from the outside world or our own internal bodily processes and informs the thinker solely based on that incoming data. Professor Clark however proposes that such sensory information, so vital to our existence, is a collaborative process which starts from inside the brain with predictions about what our senses will perceive to which is added the data from outside of what we actually perceive. Said another way, his mind-bending thesis is:
“The brain does not simply take in information in a passive way which is interpreted to the thinker. In addition, the brain has a remarkable predictive quality which anticipates what will be received through our sense organs and forges an amalgam of the two forces—predictions from the inside and data from the outside.”
The bulk of the text entails the experimental evidence to support this tenet as well as a number of disparate entities that are now more believably explained and understood.
• Hallucinations (false perceptions arising in serious psychiatric disorders or physical disruption of brain function, e.g. alcohol withdrawal, psychedelic drug use, or head trauma). This phenomenon can come from internal predictions that are not followed or validated by events in outside reality.
• Delusions (fixed false beliefs that are not true (e.g. the CIA is following me, the mafia is trying to kill me, or aliens are beaming electromagnetic pulses into my brain) can likewise be better understood by using Clark’s postulate. Ongoing and uncorrected false predictions from inside the brain can cause the brain to attempt to form increasingly radical hypotheses to accommodate disparate pieces of experience. Humans are regularly and consistently forming cognitive constructions to “understand” and “explain” events even if the constructions are incorrect. People would rather have some way to “organize” our experience even if that belief is ultimately found to be erroneous. Living with uncertainty and confusion is always less comfortable.
• The Placebo Effect (pain relief when “sugar pills” rather than true analgesic substances are ingested) can be caused by false predictive expectations of pain relief.
• Ongoing bodily pain when no pathology can be found can also be understood. The most notable example of this is Phantom Limb Pain where pain is perceived to be coming from an extremity that has been surgically removed and is truly “not there.” False predictions coming from inside the brain can explain this rather bizarre phenomenon.
• The time-honored adage “practice makes perfect” may not only be a matter of so called “muscle memory” and repetition, but also because the individual’s brain is providing ongoing predictive experiences of success, not failure.
One might expect that such a book delving deeply into the fields of neurology and psychiatry might be overly technical or difficult to understand. It is just the opposite as the author has an ability to write about his subject matter in an easily readable and understandable manner. Anyone interested in a variety of aspects of mind, brain, medical symptomatology, psychiatric symptomatology, or a wealth of other topics would be well advised to read this text.