The Experience Machine
How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality
A brilliant new theory of the mind that upends our understanding of how the brain interacts with the world
“This thoroughly readable book will convince you that the brain and the world are partners in constructing our understanding.” —Sean Carroll, New York Times bestselling author of The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time, and Motion
For as long as we’ve studied human cognition, we’ve believed that our senses give us direct access to the world. What we see is what’s really there—or so the thinking goes. But new discoveries in neuroscience and psychology have turned this assumption on its head. What if rather than perceiving reality passively, your mind actively predicts it?
Widely acclaimed philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark unpacks this provocative new theory that the brain is a powerful, dynamic prediction engine, mediating our experience of both body and world. From the most mundane experiences to the most sublime, reality as we know it is the complex synthesis of sensory information and expectation. Exploring its fascinating mechanics and remarkable implications for our lives, mental health, and society, Clark nimbly illustrates how the predictive brain sculpts all human experience. Chronic pain and mental illness are shown to involve subtle malfunctions of our unconscious predictions, pointing the way towards more effective, targeted treatments. Under renewed scrutiny, the very boundary between ourselves and the outside world dissolves, showing that we are as entangled with our environments as we are with our onboard memories, thoughts, and feelings. And perception itself is revealed to be something of a controlled hallucination.
Unveiling the extraordinary explanatory power of the predictive brain, The Experience Machine is a mesmerizing window onto one of the most significant developments in our understanding of the mind.
"Human brains are prediction machines," contends Clark (Surfing Uncertainty), a cognitive philosophy professor at the University of Sussex, in this eye-opening study. Pushing back against the idea that the brain passively processes information from the senses, Clark argues that the organ is instead constantly predicting external reality based on previous experiences and adjusting mental impressions as new information arises. He highlights the surprising scientific research that backs up this claim, noting a 2001 study that demonstrated the power of suggestion on perception by asking participants to report if they heard the song "White Christmas" buried in a white noise recording; one-third said they did, despite the tune not featuring in the noise. Predictive processing, Clark suggests, can contribute to depression (through failure of the brain to alter negative expectations even when faced with "evidence of positive outcomes") and chronic pain (through false predictions that "innocent" bodily signals indicate physiological damage). This revelation opens new vistas for treatment, and Clark describes how cognitive reframing can teach patients to correct "aberrant predictions" and reinterpret pain. The mind-bending research upends conventional wisdom about how humans interact with the world around them, and the lucid prose ensures lay readers won't get lost. This head trip delivers.