The prediction machine

Neuroscience makes the case that the brain is capable of prediction.

In Chatter, Ethan Kross writes, “The brain is a prediction machine that is constantly trying to help us navigate the world.” He references Andy Clark’s mental model of brains as predictive machines (more here at The New Yorker). There’s also Micha Heilbron’s work saying the same thing.

That’s not to be confused with magical thinking—the idea that the brain’s thoughts can directly influence the material world—though it does provide a starting point to why sometimes the brain’s thoughts lead us to pay attention, make observations, and generate ideas that lead us to our desired outcomes.

As we start updating our perspectives with new ideas, experiences, and mental models, we also set up our brains to make new predictions. If we don’t take in new ideas, our brain is only capable of making the same old predictions.

If we’re used to people in our lives—our teachers, our parents, our friends—saying, “You can’t do that, you’re going to fail,” our brains will be wired to make a prediction that other people will say the same thing. The opposite holds true too; which is why a manager or leader can gather evidence and find the sweet spot to make a drastic, unexpected, positive change. Sometimes, these changes are so unbelievable—and practically impossible—that the people who actually made the change don’t even know how they did it; it feels like leaders like Steve Jobs distort reality.

Similarly, if we don’t focus enough, our brain experiences too much noise and isn’t set up to recognize patterns, which is what it needs to make better predictions.

Sometimes, because it’s such a messy process that we haven’t made sense of yet, we use blanket words, like, “Luck,” to describe what we can’t explain.

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