Jeff Hawkins was the founder of Palm, the company that gave us the first usable PDA (sorry Apple Newton, it wasn’t meant to be). It ends up that Jeff really wanted to be a neuroscientist when he grew up, not a Silicon Valley bazillionaire, so when he left Palm he started thinking again about his first love, the prefrontal cortex, and produced a fascinating, readable book with co-author Sandra Blakeslee called On Intelligence (2005).
I think the book has met some mild resistance among “real” neuroscientists, but I find myself rooting for the scrappy amateur among the pros, because I happen to be one myself (but without Hawkins’ resources, unfortunately), and Hawkins is, without question, a really smart guy worth of anyone’s attention who is interested in this topic.
What I want to introduce here is the concept of preconscious prediction.
We have spent some time on this blog trying to demystify the preconscious, trying to show how it is not the place where zombie mind control lives, nor where people can be programmed into mindless consumption machines (sorry neuromarketers, it wasn’t meant to be). It is not where “the truth” exists, nor where the “buy button” exists. Rather, it is the mechanism by which our brains scan our environment for threatening and rewarding stimuli before we become consciously aware of them.
If you like analogies, then the proper way to think about the preconscious is as the world’s best executive assistant, bringing matters to the attention of the conscious mind that it ought to be focusing on. Our continued existence as a species is a testament to how well this partnership of preconscious and conscious has worked over the last few million years (the jury is still out on the next few hundred).
The idea that Jeff’s book drove home for me was the notion that the brain is not a passive reception machine (and here I use the word ‘machine’ purely metaphorically because my wife giggles when I use the word ‘organ’), but rather an active prediction machine. This is actually a stunning idea with far-reaching implications for understanding how the brain works. To resort to analogy again, it’s as if we’re running a surveillance tape in our heads, but it is not recording what just happened, it is projecting what is likely to happen, given the current situation we are in.
It is this capability that allows us to do some amazing things that we barely know we are doing. For example, Jeff ruminates in his book about a seemingly trivial accomplishment, noticing that a blue coffee cup has appeared in his office. Here is the excerpt that turned on the proverbial lightbulb for me:
what would happen if a new object, one I had never seen before, appeared in the room – say, a blue coffee cup.
The answer seemed simple. I would notice the new object as not belonging. It would catch my attention as being new. I needn’t consciously ask myself if the coffee cup was new. It would just jump out as not belonging. Underlying that seemingly trivial answer is a powerful concept. To notice that something is different, some neurons in my brain that weren’t active before would have to become active. How would these neurons know that the blue coffee cup was new and the hundreds of other objects in the room were not? The answer to this question still surprises me. Our brains use stored memories to constantly make predictions about everything we see, feel, and hear. When I look around the room, my brain is using memories to form predictions about what it expects to experience before I experience it. The vast majority of predictions occur outside of awareness. It’s as if different parts of my brain were saying, “Is the computer in the middle of the desk? Yes. Is it black? Yes. Is the lamp in the right-hand corner of the desk? Yes. Is the dictionary were I left it? Yes. Is the window rectangular and the walls vertical? Yes. Is sunlight coming from the correct direction for the time of day? Yes.” But when some visual pattern comes in that I had not memorized in that context, a prediction is violated. And my attention is drawn to the error.
Of course the brain doesn’t talk to itself while making predictions, and it doesn’t make predictions in a serial fashion. It also doesn’t just make predictions about distinct objects like coffee cups. Your brain constantly makes predictions about the very fabric of the world we live in, and it does so in a parallel fashion. It will just as readily detect an odd texture, a misshapen nose, or an unusual motion. It isn’t immediately apparent how pervasive these mostly unconscious predictions are, which is perhaps why we missed their importance for so long. They happen automatically, so easily, we fail to fathom what is happening inside our skulls. I hope to impress on you the power of this idea. Prediction is so pervasive that what we “perceive” – that is, how the world appears to us – does not come solely from our senses. What we perceive is a combination of what we sense and of our brains’ memory-derived predictions.
That last sentence is the killer, so I’m going to repeat it.
What we perceive is a combination of what we sense and of our brains’ memory-derived predictions.
The implications of preconscious prediction for consumer research, indeed for all psychological research, is profound. It means there is no such thing as an “innocent” observation. If a researcher asks you what you think about the fragrance of a new shampoo, your answer will not only be about the shampoo (the sensory experience), it will be about how all your long-term memories about shampoos, soaps, cleanliness, current favorite products, etc., impose upon your interpretation of the shampoo’s fragrance.
The problem for researchers is that you do not have direct access to all those preconscious predictions that contributed to your conscious perception and, ultimately, your evaluation. If I, as a researcher, mistakenly attribute your evaluation to the fragrance alone, I will miss all those preconscious sources of your evaluation.
What neuroscience, psychophysiology, and behavioral economics give us are tools and techniques for capturing and measuring the observable traces of those preconscious sources of attention, evaluation, and behavior. We may not be consciously aware of our own preconscious processing, but our brains and bodies provide many clues that a qualified researcher can pick up to measure what is going on below the surface. Only by making the preconscious observable can we, as Hawkins puts it, “fathom what is happening inside our skulls” and really understand the mental activity that underlies our attitudes, decisions, and behavior.
Originally posted on my previous blog, August 23, 2009.