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The anticipation is sweet – so what is going on in our brains when we look forward with anticipation? 

By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D. 

Having endured a few cold winter months here in Cape Town (although with some much-celebrated rainy days for our depleted dams), most of us are looking forward with anticipation, predicting that once again we can enjoy those long, warm, sunny days of summer.  Maybe some of us have family or friends planning on holidaying with us, or have businesses that welcome the influx of tourists to the fair Cape!  

It’s interesting to consider what is happening in our brains when we anticipate – or predict – the future, as it can often be more pleasurable to look forward to something than to actually experience it (think of looking forward to a holiday and the speed at which actually being on holiday passes!). Neuroscientists understand that we use our brains all the time to anticipate, or predict our future. When we get our predictions wrong (which happens quite often, believe it or not!) in neuroscience we call this surprise, novelty or prediction error (think about predicting that some fruit you are about to eat tastes sweet, but has turned sour). Our brains are wired to sample, or forage among environmental stimuli for novelty, and reward us when we get our predictions right.  

And when we get things right often enough our brains function unconsciously (remember learning to drive through trial and error, and now after years of experience how intuitive it is).  With all this in mind, let’s consider some brief examples that can be learned from the neuroscience of anticipation for the benefit of our daily lives.

So why is anticipation often pleasurable, and why does it make us feel more aware?  

Consider the anticipation of a first sip of a fine Pinotage Reserve that glows a rich plum-red in a sparkling crystal glass, or a first bite of a delectably moist, rich chocolate cake baked to perfection.  Even the mere descriptions of these examples are laden with pleasurable detail to help us predict our experience of what is essentially a basic activity of drinking or eating.  

And back to the example of planning for a summer holiday – one must mentally consider with patience all of the preparations that need to be made – packing the right clothes, organising transportation to the airport, and the hotel arrangements at the final destination.   

Neuroscientists call the attention to detail involved in anticipating future events epistemic foraging, which means the degree to which we try to validate our knowledge of something for use in the future, by paying attention to our experience of it. If we forage often enough, and our predictions are correct – such as tasting the good wine and cake or taking holidays that always coincide with pleasant, sunny days –  we stop paying attention.  Our brains accept the status quo and we become pleasurably unconscious in accepting our knowledge of the world.

However, surprise, uncertainty and novelty (if not contained within certain, predictable limits) feels less pleasant, because it forces our brains to update our prior beliefs about how we think the world is (think of somebody playing a prank by jumping out from behind a bush to surprise you!).  It only feels pleasant when we successfully predict, or anticipate our future, which is still uncertain until it happens! If we predict that soon we will have summer, but that global warming changes our South African climate to bring more rain – we might feel happy that our dams get filled – but our prediction error will make us feel uncomfortable, and maybe even stressed. 

If our prediction error is high, we pay more attention to our world and to our awareness of it – and as such our consciousness is temporarily higher too (which is energy-demanding for the brain). Prediction errors coincide with unpleasantness until we learn to correctly predict our environment again.  Once we have recalculated our view of the world – and this happens both on a momentary basis as we navigate through our daily lives, as well as on a macroscopic level as we plan for the future – we can return to our comfort zone of knowing what’s what! 

Improving our ability to anticipate or predict what happens in future, improves our attention in daily life.  For example, paying attention to our repetitive, unchanging breathing or our body’s internal state in meditation (which I will write more about next month!) can help us to strengthen the ability to predict a certain (as opposed to an uncertain) sense of self, which ultimately feels calming and pleasurable.  

However, a small level of uncertainty (or stress) is good for us, as it allows us to learn and update our knowledge of ourselves and our environment. Remember, our brains change all the time no matter how young or old we are – in neuroscience we use the term neuroplasticity – and so challenges to our prior beliefs help us to flexibly update our knowledge of the world.   

Human brains cannot help but have much of the learning taking place consigned to unconsciousness  – having much of what we know functioning automatically enables us to conserve energy and move optimally around in the world.  But by patiently observing our prior beliefs, we can become more aware of ourselves and our surroundings, which will ultimately help us to become more flexible and less disappointed when things don’t pan out as expected.  Although, I anticipate that we will have a wonderful summer – I hope with some refreshing rain – this year!

Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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