Perceptual Control Theory

Perceptual Control Theory is a very popular model of how the brain works. Its basic premise is this: our perception of the world is not merely based on what our senses perceive. It is also based on what we “expect to perceive”. For instance, when I am in a car driving down a road, I “expect” to see some trees, perhaps some houses, people walking on the sidewalk, etc. Hence, on staring out of the window of the car, if I continue seeing just these things, the conscious part of my mind will zone out, while my unconscious brain will keep registering these things passing by the window. However, if I suddenly see a Royal Bengal tiger jumping on my car, the unconscious brain will make the conscious brain zap back into attention, and I will reflexively crouch, or perhaps shield my body somehow.

If I were to re-phrase what perceptual control theory says, I would say that it talks about expectation, and how that expectation aligns with the world around us. When I sleep, I expect to be surrounded by relative peace and calm. Hence, on hearing a loud noise, this expectation has been falsified, and I wake up in order to understand what is happening around me. I need to create a new model of the world, in which such disturbances are possible while I sleep. The good thing about these expectations and models of the world is that they can be corrected quickly and decisively. If I don’t expect to see snakes in my house, and I suddenly see a snake one day, my mental model of my house will change to include the possibility of snakes. I’ll now be more careful when I open cupboards and peer down drain pipes, in order to improve my chances of survival.

However, our brain also forms expectations and models of the world that cannot be corrected so quickly and decisively. Hence, we stick to these models for a long period of time, almost always to our detriment. Why am I writing about this? Because I have often made mental models of the world that were incorrect, and proved to have significant impacts on my life in terms of career, social life, etc. In this article, I will talk about one particular example.

I have a mental model of the world which is perhaps more aspirational than realistic. When I pick up a book, or a paper, I expect that if I really focus, I will be able to able to read it within a few hours, and well within a day. This is my expectation. However, reality is different. Time after time, I have noticed that I am not able to read more than a couple of pages of a mathematics paper or textbook in one sitting. It is possible that I am slower than usual, or maybe this is the pace at which everybody reads. However, I refuse to accept that this is fundamentally true for me, because I may have ambitions of blazing through lots of books and papers in no time, and doing good research as a consequence. Hence, one part of my brain has an expectation that aligns with my lofty goals, and there is another part of my brain that knows that this is not possible.

What happens as a result of this incoherence? When my “expectation” and “reality” are different, instead of crouching like I did when I saw the tiger, I decide to not read that book or paper at all. I decide to do something completely different, like reading another book. Note the difference: sense perception forces us to change our model of the world much more quickly and easily. If I expect to not see a tiger on the road, and I see a tiger, my model of the world changes instantaneously to include the possibility of tigers on the road. If I expect to see Trump-Pence banners on the roads, and I see Biden-Harris banners instead, my model of the world quickly changes to accommodate the fact that there may be many Democrats in my neighborhood. However, when I have two models of productivity in my brain, even though one may have resulted from past experience, it is very difficult to abandon the aspirational model for the more realistic model.

In this case, the aspirational and ambitious model in my brain suggests that I should be able to blaze through thick tomes in no time if I really focus. However, the more realistic model, which has been informed by past experiences, suggests that on average, I do not read more than 4 pages of math in a day. At this stage my brain does two things: it says that the former model may still not be wrong, because I didn’t really focus when I read only 4 pages. When I do, I will obviously be able to read more. This is perhaps similar to “True Communism has never really been tried. When the one true Communist establishes a state, humanity will progress like never before.” The other thing that my brain does is that it recognizes that I will probably not be able to truly focus and read large parts of this book. Hence, in order to avoid potentially falsifying my ambitious model, it forces me to read something completely different, through which I can escape judgement.

I have suffered because of this for a long time. I don’t work on homework assignments until the last moment because I think that I will be able to do them the day before class. I don’t work on papers on time because I think that I will be able to do them at the last minute. I don’t read the texts I am supposed to. Because I cannot find a way to falsify the ambitious part of my brain.

Yesterday, I attended a productivity workshop. In that workshop, one interesting perspective that I gained was that I need to manage my expectations. To think “I will be happy if I am able to read 4 pages of this book” as opposed to “I will be happy only when I am able to read this whole book in a short time”. Although it may sound counterintuitive, lowering expectations over the short term may lead to much better results in the long run. Perhaps managing expectations is an extremely important part of my life that I never quite recognized before. If I have a model of the world, I should write down the circumstances in which I will accept it as an accurate model of the world, and also the circumstances in which I will abandon it. In this case, I should write down that if I am not able to read 50 pages of a textbook in a day, I will probably never be able to do it, and hence this expectation is false. I should revise my expectations, until my model of the world aligns with the actual world.

In some ways, this is akin to the scientific method. And it is equally powerful when falsifying theories of black magic, as it is in falsifying delusional theories of the self.

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Graduate student

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