Anticipating responses

How do we interact with the world around us? It’s a fascinating subject and one which is throwing up new discoveries all the time. It might be easy to dismiss as a cliché the comment that how I see the world is different to your perception. However, the more that we learn about perception the more we understand that each of our individual responses may be influenced by a range of stimuli including past experiences and our personal and physical circumstances.

Recently two articles on the Science Daily website have added to the discussion about perception and response. The first reported the results of a study into the way in which our brains not only track how we move through the physical environment but also how we perceive the movements of others.  By deploying a backpack which wirelessly connected to electrodes, the study collected data in real time as participants moved through a room. Interestingly the study identified the fact that what we pay attention to influences the way in which our brains look to map out a location. For example brain patterns flowed more strongly when the participant was looking for a hidden spot than when they were merely exploring the room.

The second article looked at the results of a study into the way in which our auditory pathway is affected by preconceptions. It’s been known for a while that our cerebral cortex predicts what will happen next, with sensory processing neurons merely encoding the difference between those predictions and reality. Now a study has discovered that the same is true of the auditory pathway. Commenting on the study Dr Alejandro Tabas commented: “Our subjective beliefs on the physical world have a decisive role on how we perceive reality.” adding “We have now shown that this process also dominates the most primitive and evolutionary conserved parts of the brain. All that we perceive might be deeply contaminated by our subjective beliefs on the physical world.”

How does this impact on our day to day lives? In part studies such as these only act to confirm what we instinctively know. For example when we give injections we tell patients that there might be a small scratch, thereby managing and minimalising any expectation of pain. Or we encourage positivity in recuperation or in managing a long term condition; helping patients to take control and influence outcomes.

As health practitioners studies such as these also help to remind us that each patient will react and respond differently to treatments and to information provided. There is no ‘one size fits all’ response with each individual reacting in part as a result of their inbuilt programming and preconceptions.

But we too can learn from these studies about the way in which we respond and react to situations. Sometimes our instinctive reactions are the right ones, born out of past experiences. But other times it may be worth stopping to question whether our decisions are based on past ‘bad’ experiences and whether we are unfairly projecting these on to new situations.

For example, is a previous poor experience of technology putting us off from trying a new programme? Or is a reluctance to engage with new methods of working a response to an earlier trial which may have taken place at a time in which we were already overloaded? In other words, is our brain anticipating a negative response and do we therefore have to work even harder to overcome and set new more positive pathways in place? Anticipating responses can be a lifeline when under pressure. But failing to question and to learn new pathways can also lead to a repeat of past mistakes. That’s really why studies such as these are so important. Not only do they push the boundaries of understanding but they also force us to stop and reconsider.