I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about human cognition – about how we make sense and take action. The useful answer describes a combo platter of species-wide sense-making systems and their unique manifestation in each of us, including:
- The evolutionary selection encoded in our DNA that favored certain kinds of sense-making and action over others.
- The specific manifestation of your own DNA, or how your body actually followed the DNA’s instruction.
- The large-scale learning model of your lived experience – your personal history, your relevant and reference humans, your community, culture, and conventions – most of which is unavailable to your conscious attention.
- Your conscious attention – the ways you moderate and mediate sensory inputs from your world, your body, and the boundary space between them.
Our bodies, alone and together, evolved by solving the problems of living. And while that all sounds complex and convoluted, it boils down to one essential problem and two pathways to address it. The one problem is “minimizing surprise” – our bodies have a narrow set of requirements to be alive, so we need to remain within those states (external and internal) most of the time. The two pathways to minimize surprise are to act externally or perceive internally – to change our world or to change ourselves.
That doesn’t mean we climb into a dark hole. A dark hole is full of surprises (including eventual hunger and thirst and loneliness). Certainly, we can and do move to places that minimize surprise – and we construct our environment to do so (by some views, that’s what culture does). But we also actively sample novel experiences (in safe ways) to build more resilient perception and prediction (surprisingly, also what culture does).
Most of our existence is a combination of avoiding and sampling surprise. And our individual solutions to that puzzle manifest in our personalities, our propensities, and the sense-making and action cycles that inform them both.
So what are we planning when we plan? We are imagining a future action (or more likely, a course of action) from the present state of our world and our relationship to it. We are bringing our evolutionary DNA, its manifestation in our bodies, our invisible lived experience, and our conscious attention to solve a future problem. And that problem has two parts:
- Affordance: The opportunity for action
A future environment that allows the actions we have in mind, and in which we have capacity to act – that affords the actions and outcomes we are planning, and;
- Propensity: The likelihood of action
A high probability that we will take that action or follow that course of action when the moment comes.
If there’s no affordance for our intended actions, we won’t be able to take them. If there’s little to no propensity for us to take the action, even given the opportunity, we will tend to do something else, or nothing.
Building both future affordance and future propensity requires a constant entanglement of making sense and taking action. Neither on its own will move us to places we imagine to do things we aspire to do. This may all sound like word salad at the moment. But I’m finding and feeling my way.