Creating Reality: How the brain experiences and anticipates the world

 

By Adrian Sparrow
NeuLine Health

The brain is the lens through which we experience the world around us. Our senses- taste, smell, sight and so forth- are our ‘receivers’ of the world’s information. Even when we’re not consciously focusing on our senses, every input our body experiences passes through the brain and is processed in our memory banks.  Through these processes of input and learning, the brain retains relevant information and can make decisions and take action based on that information.

 

Memory
When you experience a sound, sight, smell, taste, or tactile change, your brain uses sensory memory. The purpose of sensory memory is to create a complete picture of the world around us or represent what we physically experience based on input. When stimulated, our brains store the input for a very short time. The brain decides here whether any of this information is worth processing.

A batter in a baseball game sees the pitcher throwing the ball, as well as the field, other players, the sky, the sensation of the uniform on skin, and dozens of other inputs, most of which the batter isn’t fully aware of.

Short-term memory, or working memory, is the temporary storage of information for conscious use. When information reaches short-term memory, the brain can decide how to use that information and plan a response. This also helps you multitask. However, short-term memory can only hold a small number of items (between five and nine) and for a short time- up to 30 seconds. Ultimately this is when your brain decides which experiences are worth keeping out of every one of your thoughts and memories.

The batter, with the goal of hitting the baseball, focuses on the visual stimuli of the pitched ball in front of them. The batter sets their muscles and prepares to swing like they trained for this stimuli. 

When the brain picks these experiences for further processing, they advance to long-term memory, where they are permanently stored for recollection. These aren’t just childhood memories but also the taste of sour lemons, the musty smell of grandma’s house, and the way a wool sweater scratches your skin; information that the brain can use to influence future decisions, like whether to keep wearing that itchy wool sweater. 

In the batter’s game, their action depends on previous experiences and instructions. If the batter stands still, they’ll miss the ball and could prevent the team from winning. Alternatively, the batter can swing their bat, hit the ball and move the team forward. Even worse, the batter could get hit by the ball. If the batter was previously hit with a fastball, they may be more hesitant to bat than somebody who didn’t have the same experience, while a batter who regularly scores runs is more encouraged to swing the bat. 

 

Anticipatory Timing
Most of the time, our brains can show us a picture that matches the physical world. In our rapidly changing world, the brain doesn’t have time to finish processing one piece of information before another input. Our bodies exist in one moment, the brain processes the moment that just happened, and the next moment is rapidly approaching. Visual illusions remind us that the brain doesn’t always get it right, filling in the gaps with our past experiences and bending the perception of reality to meet our expectations. Visual illusions also prove that our brain’s processing lags in comparison to the real world

Different parts of the brain are used when dealing with time. One study shows that the brain doesn’t process time the same way a clock does, in minutes and hours. We have several biological clocks to help us keep track of time, with different internal and external processes, such as the circadian rhythm, where light affects our sleep patterns. The brain records our life in measures of experience and memory and the events within those experiences. This means the timeline of events in our brain doesn’t always match the universe’s timecode. 

Our brains compensate for gaps in processing by detecting patterns and filling in the blanks, sometimes erroneously. Pattern recognition helps us anticipate coming events so we can react appropriately. Memories of past experiences will influence our ultimate course of action. Research shows that the brain actively tries to relate events as they occur, and thus may take inaccurate action. 

“In one example (Roediger, 1997), people are first given lists of words: sourcandy-sugar-bitter-good-taste-tooth-nice-honey-soda-chocolate-heart-caketart-pie. During the later recognition phase, subjects are asked to respond “yes” or “no” to questions of whether a particular word was on the list. With high frequency and high reliability, subjects report that the word “sweet” was on the list. That is, they “remember” something that is not correct.” (source).

Perception creates a story about reality that moves us through our lives. “Our brains work hard to bend reality to meet our prior experiences, our emotions, and our discomfort with uncertainty. This happens with vision,” which leads to the questions raised in visual illusions. “But it also happens with more complicated processes” (source), like playing sports, considering current events, or dealing with a loss. The batter in their game utilizes every part of their memory and anticipates when to swing based on the visual input of the baseball being pitched toward them, and reacts accordingly, swinging the bat and- hopefully- hitting the ball. 

 

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