Illusions and realities of predicting the future.

Deja vu – the feeling of having experienced something before despite knowing otherwise –  is one of those strange phenomena that we all experience from time to time. But what is going on in the brain when you experience deja-vu? Why does it happen? What does it mean?  And what can it help tell us about predicting or not predicting the future?

The science of deja vu

Over the years, there have been lots of theories and discussions about what might explain the feeling of deja vu. However, one idea recently proposed in the scientific literature is that deja vu is related to the brain’s power to predict what might happen next.

The brain is a prediction machine. It is always thinking about what might happen next and setting up expectations and predictions so that you can be more accurate and effective in your thoughts and behaviors. Being able to predict what might happen next means you can plan for the future, preempt difficult situations, and generally be one step of the game.

According to some scientific ideas, deja vu happens when you have the illusion that you accurately predicted what has just happened. However, the problem isn’t you didn’t. It was just a feeling. A feeling that you knew what would happen. A feeling of deja vu.

Just a feeling

In other words, deja vu is just the feeling that you have correctly predicted something that has just happened…when it is most likely you didn’t. This is why deja vu feels different compared to when something happens that you did predict might happen. What’s more, the feeling of deja vu modifies your hindsight of the event and reinforces the sense that you were able to predict what was about to happen – the “I knew that was going to happen” thought that you have when you experience deja vu.

The feeling of familiarity and clairvoyance associated with deja vu are, therefore just an illusion in your mind.

Predicting the future

But what about actually being able to predict the future? Well, the brain has a whole series of mechanisms that it can use to gain a good idea about what might happen next. And although they won’t tell you next weeks lottery numbers, they can often give you a pretty good idea of the way events might pan out.

Of course, they don’t always get it right. Factors you weren’t aware of can suddenly appear and throw a spanner in the works, which means you are surprised rather than prepared. But, in general, using the information available to you – in other words, what you’ve learned about particular situations, people, and the wider world – you can generate some likely scenarios and expectations in your mind, which you can then use to guide your thinking and behavior. So what are these mechanisms and what can they teach us about being able to predict the future?

Patterns and sequences

Well, some of the major ones are based around seeing patterns and sequences. For example, many events that play out in your life often follow a particular pattern. Maybe a situation plays out similarly each time it happens so that you can learn to see where it might be heading and divert your resources accordingly. Or perhaps a person’s behavior displays a particular sequence that you can pick up on to think “I know where this went last time and I don’t want that to happen again”. More generally, people’s habits allow you to predict how people will behave by picking up on the kind of triggers that cause them to act in a particular way.

Pattern busting

Of course, this all relates to operating predictably, something you don’t always want to do. So you can also turn this on it’s head and think, how can I stop thinking and behaving so predictably? How can I break from the expected sequences and predictable patterns to generate something new and differentiating that stands out from the crowd. Being aware of the patterns, sequences and habits which are part of your life and deliberately trying to break them to take a difference course of thought or action is a first step to doing this. So maybe next time you find yourself operating in a predictable way, think, what could I have done to be less predictable?

If you want to find out more about how to think differently to generate more novel and creative thinking in your organization, then please get in touch with us at Synaptic Potential.

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