The Predictive Process of Perception

Let’s begin with this simple, yet little known fact: our cognition guides our perception. Our five senses are nothing more than receptors for photons of light, wavelengths, air pressure, and so on.

The truth is that we see, touch, taste, smell, and hear with that magical three pound mass between our ears. The brain, in the most efficient manner possible organizes our multisensory inputs to help form our perceptions. But what if the perception process began long before we gathered input from our senses?

The perceptual process of the brain is surprisingly predictive in nature, and a lot of times our predictions are guided by our unconscious. To gain a better understanding of the predictive process of the perception we’re going to step into a college classroom.

“Our teacher was a nice!”  “Our teacher was a douche bag!”  “Wait. Don’t we have the same teacher?”

same class, different perceptions.

A college class was told they were going to have a guest speaker for their class. As an introduction a piece of paper was handed out to each student describing the guest speaker’s credentials and a brief description of his personality.

What the students didn’t know is that there were two types of papers handed out in the class. The only thing that differed on the two papers was the description of the guest speaker’s personality. On one form he was described as having a warm and open personality. On the other form he described as having a cold and stand-offish personality.

Here’s where it gets interesting. All of the students sat through the exact same lecture in the exact same room at the exact same time. At the end of the guest lecture they were given a singular form that asked them to rate the teacher’s performance and overall demeanor.  Interestingly enough the students responded to the review form accordingly to the pieces of paper they were handed prior to the lecture.

Puzzled by Perception

Understanding the complexities of perception was one of the main reasons I chose to study neuroscience in college and continue to today. I have always been amazed by situations where two people can look at the same object, or partake in the same singular interaction and derive two entirely different perceptions. I guess that is the beauty of cognitive diversity; everyone has their own lens or cognitive predisposition that guides the way they perceive the world.

As a marketer I was intrigued by another mysterious form of perception. It was called “value”.  “Value” is a ubiquitous term that is thrown around in business today that suggests something is perceived as favorable and possesses great meaning. You can place value on anything: ideas, goods, services, even people.

However, if you spend the time examining “value” you would realize that on the front end value is nothing more than imaginary perception.  Once you break down the perceptual process you will find that value is completely subjective and relative. I know this to be true because as a marketing and sales strategist it’s my job to construct and create value on a client by client basis.

Using Jungle Fruit to Explore the Perceptual Process of Value

The perceptual process of value something is actually broken down into three stages:

Part 1: Predicted Value (Expected Value)

This is where we construct a prediction of how we will perceive something. The interesting thing about this stage in the process is that it’s completely subjective and often times hypothetical.

For example, let’s pretend I just came back from the jungles of Brazil and discovered a new fruit that has never been eaten before. I am bringing it back to the states and want you to try it before anyone else and tell me if you like it.

At this point you would be asking questions to familiarize this unknown fruit. What’s it taste like? What’s it look like? What’s fruit is it similar to? Do I like the fruit it looks similar too? My point here is that you can ask a million questions to familiarize yourself with the unknown tasting fruit, but in the end you’re going to form some type of perception that you’re tied to. So let’s say you expect the fruit to taste like a pineapple, and you hate pineapple.

Part 2: Experienced Value

This is the part of the perceptual process where you actually experience something. This stage is objective and real.

you either like or disliked this fruit long before you even took a bite.

In our unknown Brazilian jungle fruit example this would be where I sit you down and make you take a bite of the fruit that I smuggled out of Brazil and past customs. Before you even bite into the fruit I can see a grimace on your face because your predictive perception is that the fruit is going to taste like something you dislike.

You continue to grimace as you begin to chew your first bite, but then after few seconds your grimace turns into a wide-eyed smile. To your amazement the unknown jungle fruit tastes like a mango. You freaking love mangos.

Part 3: Overall Awarded Value

This is the final stage in the perception process where you decide how much you value something based on your expectations and experience. Value falls on a spectrum so your awarded value varies in degrees.

In regards to jungle fruit you feel value the fruit at a 7 on a scale of 1-10. Odds are that you would have rated the fruit a 9 or a 10 if you expected the fruit to taste like a mango. You went into the tasting weary but left pleasantly surprised.
The interesting part about the process of perception is that it’s overwhelmingly front-loaded and predictive. A lot of times we seek to justify our predicted value and aren’t even aware of it. The most important part of the process should be the experience, but our experiences are often guided by our predictions. Looking back at the college guest lecture scenario you’re able to see that the paper guided the predictive value of the guest lecturer in both sets of students.

The Neuroscience of Predictive Perception

From a neurological standpoint predictive sights and experiences trigger less brain activity, and physiologically speaking it’s actually a good thing to use less energy. The brain has a finite amount of mental energy and as a result is highly efficient in its use of it. Mental tasks like critical thinking and examination require our brains to burn up a lot of this mental energy and are normally reserved for the first time we encounter a new or salient stimuli.

The brains accounts for 2% of your body's mass yet 20% of your body's energy consumption. Our brains our predictive to help conserve energy.

To increase overall efficiency our brains predict the familiar leading into expected unfamiliar situations. That is the beauty and complexity of the human brain that is not only reactive but proactive as well. Constructing expectations is actually more mentally efficient in the short term. As a result of these physiological processes in the brain people can be “primed” for perceptions and behavior, and in some cases that leads to a mismatch in cognition and reality.

The region of the brain that allows us to construct our expectations for perception is the prefrontal cortex. This is a highly evolved part of the frontal lobe of the brain that allows us [humans] to think hypothetically. In essence our prefrontal cortex allows us to perceive with out actually perceiving, and then create an expectation from that process. A lot of times we then seek to validate our expectations.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

We have all heard the old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” However, actually not judging a book by its cover is much easier said than done. We know the process of how we perceive and award value. If you know how to navigate this process you can begin to really focus on the objective experience instead of the subjective expectation.

Clear your mind before trying something new and try to shake free of what might jump into your head before you experience a stimuli or situation.  Sometimes our subjective predictions hold emotional weight. In these situations it will take more practice to detach from your expectations, but logic can override emotion and that control will serve you well in decision making.