In the beginning, there is perception. Long before you paid attention to something or formed a memory, your brain used its extensions, the senses, to gather input, calculate the probability of certain outcomes, and ultimately – predict what’s your best course of action to keep you in a good shape; to keep you alive and well. Sounds, smells, touches, tastes, and probably most importantly for humans – sights – are the basic building blocks of our being in the world. So basic and so ubiquitous in fact, that unless deemed crucial by our brains for one purpose or another, they would go unnoticed, unpaid attention to. They are going to keep collecting input from day one, nay – from second one, until there is no more need for them to collect anything because our bodies can no longer act on it.
In the course of a day terabytes of data from our senses will feed the extraordinary prediction making machine in our skulls. We are not going to realize this of course; not more than, say, we are aware that there is already water in the pipes before we turn it on, or how the fridge works before it breaks, or that millions of people are at work at this very moment to sustain the world as we know it and fight entropy. But the data will be received. And albeit we seem to think otherwise, it will be far from perfect – in fact, exactly the opposite in fact. The data supplied by our senses will be unstructured, fuzzy, mixed, raw, murky, partial, and sparse; but then again, in huge volumes and with a constant flow.
In the next tiny moment in time, your brain will start working with the data we have supplied it with. Its goal – to make sense, to the best of its ability, of the sensory data to suggest the best courses of action. Our brains are meaning-making efficiency-seeking devices. They will follow the way of the water – the least energy consuming path to arriving at an appropriate, or at least deemed so, action. And the least energy consuming path is the path well travelled, as anyone who had taken a walk in the mountain for example knows well – it is easier to walk on well-formed paths and it’s difficult to go through places no one had walked before.
In brain terms the equivalent would be to say that what fires together wires together. Our brains are built of billions of neurons connected to each other. In a lot of ways, our thoughts, the fact that you can read and understand this sentence, that you appreciate it or not, is a combination of neurons firing together to create your experience and to give it meaning. What the so called Hebbian theory postulates is that neural networks that are frequently activated will become stronger (faster and more easily activated) in time and the ones that are not activated will be pruned. This is a process done constantly by your brain (even as you grow older) and is the foundation of neuroplasticity – the fascinating ability of our brains to model themselves. What follows from this? That Aristotle was on the something when he claimed that “We are what we repeatedly do.” How does the brain decide what to do then? How does it learn to make sense of the world to drive our actions?
In essence, from a brain perspective, making sense means arriving at an explanation for the events unfolding around us, encoding them in rules so the world becomes predictable and the sense-making process efficient, and embedding them in our neural networks. The brain needs to learn the rules of the game so that the process of you and me acting in the world becomes fast enough and reasonably appropriate; if this weren’t the case we would be stuck in a constant process of information processing (which, yes, we sometimes are).
The rules our brains create and learn, if we are to put them in a sentence, would be straightforward statements in the form of If A then B (with a certain degree of probability). Call it an algorithm if you will; only the most remarkable collection of algorithms in the universe – a library of algorithms for anything you can encounter in your life today or tomorrow; or more precisely, a set of neural networks activated by default based on the path-of-least-resistance rule for these events. Correlations in the form of neurons firing together; extraction of regularities and probabilities. Patterns. How do we learn these regularities and probabilities? By tapping into the only two sources of knowledge that exist – our experiences and other people’s thoughts. Read on.
In the beginning, lacking the capabilities to communicate verbally in a way understandable for others, we rely mostly on the first process, neatly called statistical learning. You drop a cup and it falls. You do it again, and it falls again. You drop a pencil and it falls. You drop a ball and it falls. You seem to have a rule there – when you drop things they fall. And it is not a rule you need to know explicitly. The most amazing feature of statistical learning is probably the fact that it ‘occurs incidentally as a by-product of perception, without intentional effort or conscious awareness.’ https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4419-1428-6_1707. Our brains, without us realizing it, are always on the look for signals and learn from these signals to make sense of this world.
Later, as we develop the capacity to interact with others, it is their thoughts and knowledge, and concepts, expressed via language, that shapes our understanding of the world, hence our ability to act in it. In this complex social world, statistical learning continues to function, only now it is supplemented by what other are saying as well. We no longer need to experience something to know it; abstraction becomes a feature of our lives in addition to the vivid, immediate experiences we had before.
What follows from this sketch of how we function in the world is this: everything is sending messages to our brains; everything impacts our understanding of the world; everything is shaping how we see and act in our environment. In a word, everything communicates.
We need not be aware of this communication as we just saw – at the end of the day, our brains will let us know the result of their work, but not necessarily the process by which they arrived at it. And of course, certain things have a much stronger impact than others and certain people have a disproportionately high impact on the patterns we recognize. Think great leaders, people you admire; your loved ones. Or think about the things and events that are strongly emotionally charged. All of these have the power to change whole regions of our pattern of seeing the world. But so do things that are, at face value, mundane and banal; so do things that pass by and large unnoticed as we go with our lives; so do typical scenes that you see every day. The difference is that the mundane and the banal creeps into us instead of hitting us with all its brute force. Like water, little by little, drop by drop, all these things carve paths of neurons firing together in our brains and shape who we are.
A word of hope is needed maybe at the end of what might sound disempowering and depressing. In this same process that makes us look like passive receivers of influences, lies our greatest hope and power as well. We are all part of someone else’s pattern and just the way things communicate to us, we communicate to others. It is via this undetected but persistent signaling that we make our strongest impact in the world. We are, literally or not, communicating to everything and everyone else just by virtue of being alive; we are, everyday, with every interaction, with every appearance, creating a pattern for someone else. The responsibility is enormous but so is our power to shape who and how we all, every single one of us, are.
My best wishes for a great day ahead!