Predictive Creatures

Posted: October 30, 2008 in Uncategorized
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We are predictive creatures. In his book entitled On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins states that our brains function primarily through a never-ending series of predictions founded on memory. On all past experiences, he says, we form a basis on which to make predictions in all present circumstances. He’s not just referring to foreseeing lucky lotto numbers or who’s going to win the upcoming election. The brain makes millions of smaller, subconscious predictions every day.

Hawkins (not to be confused with Dawkins) uses two examples that made his argument clear to me. First is the “altered door” phenomenon, and it goes like this. Say I take your front door, which you walk through every day, and change it in some way. Hollow it out, move the doorknob a couple inches, or whatever other small alteration I would choose. Walking through, you would notice the change immediately because you’ve predicted that the door would be as it’s always been, but the change surprises you. Maybe it’s heavier than you remember or the handle doesn’t feel quite right.

Second is the staircase example. You’re walking down your steps one day and you get to the last one…or so you thought. Expecting to step onto a lateral surface even with your other foot, you find that the floor has mysteriously vanished beneath you and you jerk to balance yourself out in time. This panicky jerking motion (similar to the feeling of waking up from a dream in which you’re about to collide with a car) kicks in only a split second after you’ve overshot your target, in this case the imagined floor. You predicted your foot would land one place, but it actually landed much lower.

At every moment we are making predictions of what we expect to see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. We don’t realize we are doing so because when something is in line with how we expect it to be, we dismiss it. Only surprises reveal that things are not as we predicted.

When I thought about this prediction theory, it caused me to consider if that might relate to anxiety. I predict events will take place in a manner suitable to my self-centered taste. For example, I expect to arrive at school five minutes early, but traffic prevents me from fulfilling my prediction. In the same way that I freak out when I miss a step, I become frustrated or angry when my perceived future and reality conflict. And if Hawkins is right, I’m not just predicting what I choose to predict, I’m predicting my life’s details at every moment. Sure sounds like a problem, considering I have no ultimate control over my future.

I want to submit my predictions to God’s authority. I can’t stop making them, for they are the backbone of human functioning. Without predictions, there would be no planning or wise foresight of consequences. But I want to be sure that my expectations don’t take precedence over a humble acknowledgment that God’s the decision-maker and I’m the servant. He’s the Author of life, who understands the story as a whole, while I’m the reader, taking in one sentence at a time. May He be honored as the unfathomable, all-wise, all-knowing Creator of heaven and earth. Nothing is mysterious to Him, for He’s planned time and space, and they are both bound to his will.

James 4:13-16
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.


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