Substrate: The Predictive Brain

It’s common to consider our brains as reactive – receiving sensory information from our bodies and our environments, making sense of that inbound information, and directing our response thereafter. It’s also common to consider that much or even most of this reaction happens at a conscious level – there’s a tiger-like rustling in the weeds, tigers are bad news, therefore our brain says: “run from the tiger.” But there’s accumulating evidence that neither of those assumptions is correct.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Rather, our brains appear to be significantly in the business of prediction, at every level of analysis and action – mostly below our conscious awareness. By the time your conscious awareness joins the party, your brain and bodily systems have already guessed about the sensory information yet to arrive, and have framed and activated a plan. As psychology/neuroscience scholar and professor Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett describes it:

Scientists are now fairly certain that your brain actually begins to sense the moment-to-moment changes in the world around you before those light waves, chemicals, and other sense data hit your brain.

That means that our experience of our environment and our bodies is largely constructed in the brain by prediction based on past experience rather than reaction to current sensory data. As Kathryn Nave et al summarize from the current science:

…the hard perceptual work is here accomplished mostly by the internal model (the “generative model”) that is constructing the predictions, leaving the incoming sensory information the task of (in effect) critiquing those predictions until a better fit is achieved.

Or, as Nadine Dijkstra frames it more provocatively:

There is no real categorical difference between imagination and reality.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s a rather essential evolutionary solution to ensure survival and thriving in a complex world. Without this predictive capacity, we wouldn’t live long. And we certainly wouldn’t have capacity to make or enjoy music, dance, sculpture, spoken word, or other expressive endeavors. Nor could we construct and manage collective efforts (like organizations) to support such endeavors.

The consciously available aspects of our brain, on their own, are too slow for most of our daily experience and actions. That said, higher-order emotions and awareness are essential contributors, as well, especially when the predictive systems guess incorrectly or inelegantly. Or when they don’t have sufficient past experience to draw upon. In those cases, the prediction/reaction systems of our brain wave a flag to prompt higher-order (and slower) analysis. According to Jenefer Robinson in Deeper than Reason:

The function of non-cognitive affective appraisals is to draw attention automatically and insistently by bodily means to whatever in the environment is of vital importance to me and mine.

Why does this matter to arts management? Because artistic expression, experience, and enterprise are all constructed by individual and collective humans. And therefore, they are constructed on and from the evolutionary, biological, sociological, and neurological substrates of human experience and action. You don’t need an advanced degree in evolutionary neuroscience to lead an arts organization. But you do need a robust working knowledge of what, exactly, you’re leading.

By this logic, you are leading a cluster of predictive systems through the lens of your own predictive system. And the vast majority of that reality is unavailable to your (or anyone’s) conscious attention. That may be a discouraging realization or an invigorating one. Either way, it’s worth imagining how you might lead yourself and others in a world where the predictive brain is the first and most influential player in the game.

[NOTE: This post is part of a series I’m calling substrate, about the world beneath the world of arts management.]

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