The Coder vs The Predictor: How The Brain Drives Focus
“Just when you think you know something, you have to look at in another way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try.” – Robin Williams’ character, John Keating — From the film ‘Dead Poets Society’
In the movie Dead Poets Society, English teacher John Keating asks his students to step up on his desk and look around to help them realise there is more than one way to see the world. When we go through our daily lives with blinkers on, we tend to miss a lot of wonderful detail. Yet, when we visit someplace new, such as another city or country, we notice the detail. The architecture of the buildings, the colour of the sky, the unfamiliar signage or customs.
An interesting thing happens when we share that experience with someone else, such as a partner. You might think the crowded streets are vibrant and exciting, while they might see them as oppressive and scary. They might see blue cobblestones, while you might swear they are grey.
You each see the same thing but perceive it differently. Who is to say which version is right?
Dr Jared Cooney Horvath is an expert in the field of educational neuroscience with a focus on human learning, memory and attention.
In his presentation The Coder vs the Predictor: How the Brain Drives Focus, part of Florence Guild’s speaker series, ’The Art of Focus’, Cooney Horvath explained how there is no right or wrong answer. It is not what we see, hear, smell, feel or taste that defines our experience, it is how our brain interprets these signals.
- The stories we use to make sense of the world – in terms of how it works or how it functions – drive who we are and how we live.
- These stories drive our perceptions, rather than the other way around. This is the fundamental power of focus.
- The concepts we use affect the coder in our brain, which affects the character in our body.
- Our concepts not only affect the way we see things, but what those things mean to us.
“Sitting in the front of your brain is a module that can send signals back to every other cell within your brain … (and) tweak how it functions at the most basic level, so that you literally (experience) the world you think should exist, not the world that actually does exist.” – Dr Jared Cooney Horvath PhD MEd
Cooney Horvath went on to explain that our brain decides what we see based on context or stories. These stories are like little program codes that we run to make sense of signals, how they fit together and how we fit within that picture.
See no evil, hear no evil
There are some experiences, such as driving the same route to work, that are so familiar we’ve already got their code worked out and we pay them less attention. We go into a type of autopilot mode and continue to see what we expect to see.
If we experience something with seemingly no context, we have to use extra brain power to work the code out. For example, if we heard a distant siren on that drive to work, we might test that sound against similar sound codes to find one that more or less fits. “Ah ha!” we say, “That’s a police car!”
However, other people on that road might have created a different code for that siren and decided that it’s is a fire truck. Same sound. Different interpretations of reality. This is why legal witnesses can have completely different, but believable stories of what ‘really’ happened.
Why don’t people behave the way we expect?
Just as we often assume other people experience things the same way we do, we also tend to expect they will respond the same way we do as well.
You’d think we’d know better. On one level, we understand that we are all different and that people’s behaviour is determined by many factors such as culture, environment and so on. Yet, we are often uneasy when others don’t act the way we expect. In fact, it can be a major barrier to effective communication.
This is true when we come across people who don’t fit social norms, such as those with ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome. As William Dodson explained in his article for Additudemag.com Uncomfortable Truths About the ADHD Nervous System:
“The main obstacle to understanding and managing ADHD has been the unstated and incorrect assumption that individuals with ADHD could and should be like the rest of us.”
Expect differences and value them.
The tendency to expect others to act like us can cause conflicts in all sorts of relationships, including those we have with our work colleagues. Some may expect punctuality while others view schedules as guidelines. Some may love working in teams while others prefer to work alone.
Each of us has our own way of seeing and doing things. That’s the way our brain has developed our codes. But, instead of getting stuck in autopilot, we need to look around us and see the richness and colour that surrounds us, too. We can re-program if we want to.
“You can literally see, feel and hear the world the way you think it should exist, not the way it actually exists” – Dr Jared Cooney Horvath, PhD, MEd
This episode forms part of our 2018 series narrative, ‘The Art of Focus’ which is based on the premise that, in an information-dense society, our attention resources have become depleted. The series’ speakers will help us identify and explore the areas in our lives where we may need to regain focus, increase our self-awareness and improve how we interact with those around us.
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