Sensory consequences to bring about actions – where does it end?

Just to be a little provocative and take an idea beyond the domain it was birthed and intended for – what happens when a whole day is shaped by predicted sensory consequences and not just a momentary action?

In predictive processing, a prediction itself acts as a motor command. This means a context, goal thought, whatever, can trigger the activation of a predicted sensory consequence which then travels down the hierarchy of the nervous system, compared to actual sensory information (producing a prediction error) and then corrected by either updating the prediction or by moving. In more succinct terms, a predicted sensory consequence brings about an action to realise that sensory consequence in reality.

It’s quite a neat model, and appears quite powerful in explaining aspects of motor control and phenomena such as force-overcompensation in a force-matching task. What happens if we extrapolate this idea beyond just a near-instantaneous movement? Say for example we imagine the sensory consequence of doing a full day’s work, meditate and focus on that, and then fulfil it by our action?

Something like this could just be seen as motivational, but maybe there’s something useful in it. Imagining and meditating on an end state gives us something with which to compare the current moment. The problem is, we can then go one of two ways. We can become overwhelmed by our sense of not being in that end state, and wallow in our lack of productivity for example. Or we can recognise the prediction error and work really hard to achieve the goal. Interestingly, the latter requires an attenuation of that prediction error, just as active inference articulates the role of sensory attenuation halting the ascent of a prediction error to facilitate a movement.

Basically, pre-sensing how that that end state feels might be useful, but might also lead to an overwhelming sense of the current state. To avoid being overwhelmed by that sense of not being there, the current state must be ignored somewhat, and if the predicted end state is retained, then action will fulfil it.

This strays into more philosophical realms, but the pattern remains. I wonder about the most effective way to live in the moment. How can imagining a future end state (predicted sensory consequence) support a philosophy of living in the moment? I am keen to be present in the moment, to make the most of where I’m at, to be present and supportive for others, and to enjoy precious moments in life rather than letting them pass me by. Maybe focusing on a desired sensory consequence takes you away from that too far in the future…

But also – going back to productivity in the working day – sometimes I picture myself sitting down and working at the start of the day to try and focus my mind. I intend to be productive so I picture myself sitting down and working. The flaw of this is that when I sit down, that imagined sensation is fulfilled in the first few minutes. I’m done. In reality, I have to work for another 6-8 hours before I’m happy with what I’ve got though that day. And once that sensation is realised in the first few minutes of typing some things and drinking some tea, my mind has gone elsewhere – to exercise, to food, to buying something. And a day that was meant to be productive has already reached its first obstacle which is not conducive to living in the moment.

Maybe counterintuitively then, imagining a medium or longer term sensation to bring about a desired action can be more fulfilling and fruitful. And with that one goal to compare our current state to, we can be more attentive in the present?

By now, I’ve successfully dragged predictive processing theory through terrain it wasn’t intended for… nor suited for? Though I keep in mind that all models are wrong, but some are useful. And I think there is something useful in imagining a sensory consequence and focusing on every sensation of that. I will try picturing myself at the end of a working day with a tired but successful feeling, a slight daze from getting lost in a project and a desire to deservedly rest. I will imagine feelings of confidence, excitement and the joy of learning. I will imagine how it feels when I break for lunch after a successful morning, and how it feels when I finish for the day. Then I will not consciously think about my day anymore than that and hope I am more inclined to fulfil these sensations with my actions during the day. I won’t become overwhelmed by my state of unproductiveness at the start of the day, but instead get lost and enthralled in the moment when I begin working to fulfil those sensory consequences…

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