“Predictions are basically the way your brain works. It's business as usual for your brain. Predictions are the basis of every experience that you have. They are the basis of every action that you take. In fact, predictions are what allow you to understand the words that I'm speaking as they come out of my --
Mouth. Exactly.” -Lisa Feldman Barrett
Lisa Feldman Barrett has this great TED Talk about how emotions are made that calls our brains prediction machines and I agree with her. I spend a great deal of time considering why we do the things we do, in my work as a life coach I spend most of my work days talking with people about the things they do and how they want them to be different or better- and the sense of confusion and frustration that comes from wanting this and yet…not changing it. Sometimes for decades.
I am like this in my own life too. As an addict I am deeply familiar with the wish to stop, to change, to barter and beg the universe to help me end the madness. It’s wild to think about the incredible amounts of suffering I did at the hands of my drinking and how in my 27th year of abusing alcohol I still made up an excuse to bundle the kids into the van around 5pm most days and go to the store to buy booze even though I didn’t want to. I had not learned how to quit drinking yet, although I had wanted and wished for it with all my might thousands of times.
I wanted to quit, and I also wanted to drink. It was almost like the cycle itself was unstoppable, this solid agreement I made to continue to drink no matter what- no matter if I lost my self respect, or felt like total shit, or vomited up black shit, or hurt myself, my friends or family. Even if I just plain didn’t want to. The prediction machine said I predict you will drink and so that’s what I did. It also predicted I would hope I didn’t drink. That cycle: the urge to drink, drinking, the hope I could quit, the hoping: all of it was predictable and each part needed the other to continue. Then after I quit drinking I still had the cycle: but with a hole in it- there wasn't the drinking but I kept self sabotage. It stayed predictable: the urge to sabotage, sabotaging, the hope I could quit, the hoping.
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I sabotaged myself in various ways with behaviors that were mild to destructive. But the result was predictable: I had a reliable cycle that let me know what to expect. One thing lead to another. These auto pilot behaviors were hard to see at first: it seemed like having all the dishes done and the kitchen clean every night was a good thing until you pulled back and saw the anxiety and tension it caused me and my family. Or rules about eating seemed healthy until they became compulsive and gave me something to sabotage, the eating rules were my new drinking, breaking the rules gave me the lift over into the hope I could do better, which lead me to the hoping. Again.
“Predictions are primal. They help us to make sense of the world in a quick and efficient way. So your brain does not react to the world. Using past experience, your brain predicts and constructs your experience of the world.” -Lisa Feldman Barrett
“I don’t know why I keep doing it” people say to me, over and over. “I don’t know what happens.” It’s the prediction machine. It’s the way our lives lose our control and become mortgaged to the system that already knows what’s next. The system that doesn't even need us to succeed, we are secondary to it’s primary goal: knowing already. It seems like a done deal, and it’s exhausting to control this system, so much so that you might spend 27 years doing something self destructive before you finally stop.
What I wonder about is how to change the machine, and how to make it easier to change it. And then I realize I don’t need it to be easy, or to happen in less than ten days or whatever other bullshit. I am the machine. And I am the prediction. The one thing I know for sure is that will be true, and the other thing I know is that it doesn't matter. I will, biologically, be on autopilot more than I’d like. What are the predictions I’m trying to get under my control doing to prevent me from living the actual heart of my life?
I feel like we are smarter than this- the ways we feed our own misery by seeing the things we predict and then going along with them! And then being shocked by our own behavior, suspending disbelief once again as we have another handful of cookies, avoid another conflict, have the same fight with our partner, wake up hungover, or buy another useless thing to fill the emptiness. WTF.
We are smarter than this, and we also don’t care that we are. The near delight in the comfort of sameness overrules the urge to change outright most of the time. Sometimes I think that it was the hope I was truly addicted to, and that’s the thing I remain addicted to still. The prediction machine knows this, it knows the hope is the fuel, not the booze or the weight or the perfect whatever/whoever- it’s the hope that turns the wheel that fulfills the prediction nearly every time.
It’s lucky that our prediction machine keeps our hearts beating, our lungs filling, our eyelids blinking, that reliability keeps us alive and for that I am grateful. I would love, however, to find a way to divert the predictability away from my inner life, my soul, my hope. I think it’s about finding the ability to be uncomfortable, a sense of comfort in not knowing, tuning in to the station that predicts unknown as a number one hit and knowing all the answers is foolish. I am fascinated by the ways we have determined things to be true, but that they are only true in as far as we hold to the predictions that they are true. I am willing to surrender to the unknown when it comes to my inner life. It takes practice to quit drinking, to see the things that continuously sabotage your life and then to pick yourself up off that path consistently enough that your machine automatically chooses the new way. Predictions are things we think might happen. But in the case of our behaviors, it doesn’t always mean they should.