The Predictive Brain and ‘Being Wrong’

June 18, 2020

As humans, our brains work in a constant state of predicting what’s likely to happen. In cognitive neuroscience, this is called the ‘predictive brain model’. Generally speaking, we’re pretty good at this. We tend to know what to say and to who, when to do certain things and when not too – often without consciously thinking about it. We compare what we thought would happen (our internal model) to what actually did (environmental input). We use this to reshape our internal model, so we’re better prepared for next time – our predictions become more finely tuned. This is often why young children appear to be so blunt or can’t seem to share – they haven’t quite learned social etiquette and have limited internal models. As we grow and have more and more experiences, our brains learn what is likely to happen, creating more complex internal models.

As humans, we’re not great at making mistakes – we all know what it’s like to accidentally say something you didn’t mean too and thinking about it every night for weeks. We do this so it doesn’t happen again, and our internal model adapts. Evolutionarily speaking, this is hugely beneficial. Those who could make better predictions would often survive longer. We could cope with ‘interference’ at any level – meaning we were less surprised when something different happened, and we could adapt our internal model much faster, leaving us better prepared. Those with more rigid internal models couldn’t adapt as quickly, leaving them much less well prepared.

Yet, for many of us, we’re living in a state of uncertainty. This, coupled with the fact our brains like to predict the future, leaves us in turmoil. We have no way of knowing for certain what will happen, and we have very little previous experience to go on, so we make our best guess. When it’s wrong, we beat ourselves up about it. Making one-off mistakes is great for learning; but making them all the time can really affect our mental wellbeing.

There’s evidence to suggest that a blow to our self-esteem leads to something called ‘social pain’ which activates the same brain circuits as physical pain – no wonder we can’t stand making mistakes, being rejected or being criticised. When we perceive a threat, whether that be physical or to our self-esteem, a part of our brain called the amygdala gets triggered. The amygdala governs our fight/flight response and is seen as the emotion centre of our brain. It diverts signals away from the cortex (the logical part of the brain responsible for higher executive functions – think forward planning and problem solving), which leaves us immediately on the defensive. Beneficial in terms of actual threat – not so much when making a simple mistake. It’s part of why we find it so hard to apologise, because our brain is convinced we’ve acted correctly.

Acknowledging that we’ve been wrong before is the first step. You’ve made a mistake before – and you’re still here. You probably even learnt how to handle that situation along the way. On that same note, remind yourself that not knowing everything is okay. You cannot control everything, so take the time to focus on what you can control – your response to the situation. Apologise if you need too, adapt your behaviours and do something to make yourself feel better.

Making mistakes takes time to adapt to. If, for example, you walked into your office, and your furniture was completely rearranged, and everything was filed differently, you wouldn’t be able to just sit down and get on with it. You’d either have to spend some time getting used to the new system or put everything back how it was before. In doing so, you might realise the new system works much more efficiently, or actually it was just a hassle for you to deal with. All of that doesn’t happen in a few seconds – it would be at least a few days before you reached a conclusion. The same thing happens in our brains with any kind of mistake – we do need time to process, and to let our brain adapt and learn from it. Allow yourself the time and space to grow and do something you enjoy to improve your mindset.

We also need to reflect and learn. Sometimes, our brains can be a bit stubborn and simply will not accept we’ve made a mistake when it’s quite apparent to everyone else. It might be like when you think you did really well on a test, and you get it back and it’s a terrible mark. We tend to blame a teacher for not teaching us well enough, the marker for not giving us enough credit, the room for being too hot so you couldn’t concentrate – but in actual fact, it was probably that you didn’t revise enough, or you had a bad night’s sleep, or you didn’t eat breakfast. Reflecting on why you think these things can be helpful, and then re-evaluate your opinions. Making mistakes isn’t inherently bad, but we have to be able to learn from them. Ask for other people’s advice and look at what you can change in the future, or think about what you’d say to a friend. Changing your opinion in the face of new information is normal – and that’s what we should be doing when we realise we’re wrong or have made a mistake. If you can’t seem to shake the feeling you’re wrong all the time, and you’re struggling to managing the stress and uncertainty that comes with it, reach out and ask for help.

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