What Are You Predicting?

tarot-1191485-1919x1685In which I attempt to describe the complex process of the prediction cycle in the brain, and why the traditional language of emotional response is failing me….. 

Like most of us, as part of both my personal and leadership path of development, I learned early on that we humans need to work on our tendency to react. That many things trigger us into “amygdala hijacks” and activate our lower, emotion-driven mammalian or even reptilian brains. And to be honest, I found this useful information. It’s good to know when I may have been taken over by an unreliable part of my brain, not clearly thinking, and simply acting in a manner dictated by a fight-flight-freeze reaction to something I perceive as a threat.

Except sorry, it’s not really how it works. First of all, we don’t have a so-called “triune brain” that evolved like a layer cake with each new (better) processor stacked on top of the ones that came before. (See my post The Orchestra of Your Brain for a more detailed exploration of this widely-believed fallacy.) In terms of our conversation here, that means that we don’t actually have an older, reactive brain that literally takes over during times of stress.

Rather, we have a highly complex, ever-evolving system. In fact, these days the way I like to describe the brain is as a system of systems, many of which actually involve the entire brain in some way. And most of which are far more complex than we even now have any idea. For example, researcher Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge has identified at least nine areas of the brain involved in the process of empathy. No one area can be said to be the location of empathy–rather, aspects of the system work together to bring us greater or lesser empathy. And, like every system, aspects can be missing, underdeveloped, or not activated under certain circumstances. (For more on this, see his fascinating book The Science of Evil.) At BEabove Leadership, we ourselves have identified at least nine areas of the brain and body involved in intuition–again, it is a system!

But I digress. The systems regulate processes, and the key process we’re going to explore here is what the brilliant researcher Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett calls the Prediction Cycle. (For a deep deep dive, see her book How Emotions are Made.) Here’s the thing that blew my mind–Dr. Barrett makes a very convincing argument that our emotions are not as we have probably been told:

  • Reactions;
  • Classic, true across all cultures (and identifiable to emotionally intelligent people through the eyes); and
  • A result of our “emotional” brain getting triggered.

Rather they are unique, individual, contextual, predictive constructions based on our personal history, language culture, and more.

Wait, what?

Emotions are not a reaction to what just happened. They are a prediction of what we think will happen (based on our context–which includes culture, language, and past experience) so that we’re ready for it when and if it does. This prediction can (and often does) happen so fast that it feels like a reaction. It’s just not.

You see, the prime directive of our brain is to keep us alive. And it has a limited “body budget” it uses to do so. So for our brain, emotional prediction is kind of like planning your bills–what am I going to need, what can I juggle around so that I am not overdrawn? And if there is a big-ticket expenditure, man, we better be ready for it. So we anticipate, the event happens, it lines up with our calculations (or doesn’t), and we readjust. For example, I recently had to take my car in for its 10,000 mile service and had budgeted a couple of hundred dollars because, since it was a new car, I had no idea what to expect. Turns out the car company covers the first 30,000 and my cost was zero (yay!). Now for the 20,000 mile service I won’t budget for it and can plan to use that money elsewhere.

Prediction Cycle

So how does this apply to emotions? In order to understand that, here’s a diagram of how the Prediction Process works in terms of the emotional systems in your brain. We predict, and that prediction has us simulate feelings associated with the prediction and interpret those feelings using emotion concepts (the richness of the emotion concepts will vary depending on language and our own ability to be “granular” with our feelings). Then what we are anticipating happens, and we compare what happened to our prediction. If it was right on, we go forward with more evidence for the accuracy of our predictions, if not we have to resolve any errors. Let me give you a concrete example to illustrate.

1) Predict: Your brain automatically predicts what will happen based on past experiences, and your current goal. This is a very complex process involving various parts of the brain and body, not just what we have been told are the “emotional areas” (therefore the whole brain and body can be thought of as emotional).

I have to talk to my boss about a raise (goal) and (based on a lot of past experience) I know she will be difficult and unreasonable.

2) Simulate: This prediction leads to an internal simulation before anything actually happens. We’re getting our body budget ready for what we think we will need.

I simulate sensations of unease, heart beating faster, and butterflies in my stomach. (I am getting prepared for what I am expecting and the energy I might need.) I interpret these feelings as my emotion concepts of anxiety and dread.

3) Compare: The simulation is compared to what actually occurs.

I meet with her and she tells me she is working on her overly abrupt management style with a coach, listens to me more thoughtfully than usual, is reasonable, and we negotiate a fair raise.

4) Resolve Errors: If simulation is in alignment with what happened, simulation is validated and will be used for further predictions. If it is not, the brain has to resolve the errors.

4) Error message! I internally resolve the dichotomy and use it for further prediction. In this case, I realize that she actually has become somewhat easier to deal with lately and perhaps I have been mis-predicting. I predict more positive outcomes in the future, simulate differently, etc. 

Key points (and this probably isn’t all of them!):

  • Prediction can happen well in advance of something–like a performance review three months away–or so quickly it doesn’t even feel like a prediction (like getting cut off in traffic);
  • The Prediction Process is neutral in nature, as are all components within it. You could just as easily predict your boss is going to reasonable based on past experience, simulate a calm nervous system, interpret that as confidence, and have her be awful. Then you have to figure out how to resolve that error;
  • Coaching can occur (and by the way, already does) at any point of the cycle. As my friend master coach Rick Tamlyn likes to say “It’s All Made Up!” Asking a client what they are making up about a situation is a way of asking what they are predicting. Asking how they feel about something is a way of asking what they are simulating and interpreting. Asking “what happened and is it what you expected?” is a way of opening the conversation for comparison. Asking “what do you make of that?” is helping them to resolve any errors. In other words, if you’re a coach, you’re already doing aspects of this cycle.

So why does this matter? I think the thing that struck me the most as a coach, is that if it is about prediction, there is a place for intervention. I can poke into whether or not my client’s prediction is fair and reasonable, and if there is current evidence for this prediction. And many times there is not–they are predicting based on old stories and saboteurs. We can look to see what competing evidence and context they have a prediction that is more life-affirming.

If my client is simply “triggered” or “reacting,” it’s too late and the best they can hope for is to do better next time. But an understanding of this prediction cycle and the fact that we are predicting can lead to more personal responsibility — our whole brains are constructing our emotional experience, we have not been taken over by some lower, animalistic part that needs to be controlled, suppressed or punished.

And so I have been stymied by language at times. Everyone knows what I mean when I say “sorry, I reacted,” or “oops, I got triggered.” But when you look someone in the eye and say “I seem to be having a negative prediction” they tend to think you’re a bit odd. (Wait, maybe I need a new prediction around that!)

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