Eggs to Dopamine: The Shock of the New

Eggs to Dopamine: The Shock of the New

By: Stephen M. Ryan

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New city. New country. Time to explore. This is one of the best feelings I know: arriving in a place I’ve never been to before, checking into my accommodation, and heading out to wander the streets and see what I can see. The fewer preconceptions the better. Let the new place speak to me, teach me, surprise me.

The plane arrived in Manila just after lunch time. The taxi didn’t take long to reach my hotel. Shower, change of clothes, camera in my pocket. Past the hotel security check and out onto the streets. What did this new city have in store for me? Sights. Sounds. Traffic rules. All worth leaving home for. A Japanese department store, a soccer game in the middle of the street, Christmas decorations in September, and purple eggs. Purple eggs? That made me pause. I knew the white kind and the brown kind (my wife insists they taste different) but what was with the purple ones? What mysteries did this new experience hold?

I love culture shock. It can hurt. It can shake up my ideas. It always intrigues. I could have chosen a more disturbing or frustrating example than the purple eggs, but I find them useful for unpacking the mechanisms involved in culture shock and, hopefully, learning a thing or two about learning along the way.

Since Oberg gave us a name for it, back in 1960, there has been a kind of consensus that culture shock is an unpleasant experience. What else could a shock be? In addition, whether, we believe the experience is shaped like a letter U, a letter W, or neither, we tend to see it as something to be overcome, something to get over. Carol Archer (1981) tried to soften the edges a bit by coining the term “culture bump” for minor occurrences, but this barely gained traction. I prefer to think in terms of “encountering difference” or “the new;” first, because it doesn’t use the word “culture,” a word I have found to be more of a hindrance than a help in discussing such things (Ryan, 2019); second, because it places the experience in a wider human context, not only seeing it as something that happens when we travel to somewhere different; but mainly because it avoids the idea that the “shock” is necessarily bad.

The first thing to note about my encounter with purple eggs is that it is about solving problems. How did this new colour of eggs fit into my existing worldview, which had so far excluded such a possibility? Why had I not encountered them before? Was there some meaning behind the colour, or were they just a natural product of a brood of hitherto unsuspected purple hens? Enquiring minds, specifically mine, want to know.

The point is that we all have enquiring minds. Making sense of the world around us, fitting the new experience into our existing understanding, is a basic survival skill. A new element in the environment could just as easily nourish you as it could pounce on you. Ancestors who did not at least try to make sense of things around them did not last very long. Those who did developed neural pathways that encouraged figuring out. Trying to make sense of things triggers a shot of dopamine in the brain, which not only helps with the thinking and makes us more likely to remember our conclusions, it also makes us feel pretty good. No wonder I am addicted to wandering in new places, looking for novelty, and trying to make sense of it; it’s the dopamine.

As an illustration of problem solving, I often use an image of a partly finished jigsaw. New ideas (pieces) need to be fit into the framework formed by the old, the pieces already there. But that is not quite accurate. In life, the new is just as likely to modify your mental picture as it is to fit into it.

The theory of cognition known as predictive processing (Clark, 2015), which is gaining increasing acceptance among brain scientists, can help us to dive deeper into the ways we process the new, the different. Imagine driving a car down a familiar road at your usual time of day. You could probably predict most of the things you are going to see or hear as you drive along. From the familiar views of roadside houses and trees to the cheery voice of your favourite drive-time news host on the radio. In fact, you do predict them. You couldn’t possibly perform all the actions involved in driving down the road if you weren’t already predicting a large part of the environment you are driving through. So, what is the role of the things you are actually seeing and hearing, the sensory information from your eyes and ears? That information is used to check that what you predict is what is actually happening and to sound an alarm in your brain if there is a discrepancy between the two.

This gives us a basic model of predictive processing, where the brain predicts and sensory input is used to confirm (or disconfirm) the predictions. A gap between prediction and input is what is called a “prediction error.” Errors[1] have a dual role. They direct your attention to the unexpected, in case it is a threat or an opportunity. They also serve as fresh data points in modifying your predictions for next time, allowing you to update and modify your view of the world.

That’s a really neat trick that the brain sometimes does, right? Well, that’s what I thought until I started to read more deeply about predictive processing. It turns out there is growing evidence that, far from being a sideshow, this is the way your brain deals with the world all the time. Our basic intuitive model of how we perceive the world is turned on its head by this theory. Rather than signals entering through the sense organs and being processed by the brain, perception in fact starts in the brain as a series of predictions, with the senses playing the relatively minor, but crucial, role of providing feedback on the brain’s predictions. The clearest evidence I have found for this comes from Lisa Barrett’s book How Emotions Are Made (2017). If our intuitive model of perception—that sensory information is sent into the brain for processing—were correct, we would expect strong connections from the eyes to the primary vision processor in our brains, known as the V1 area. While these connections do exist, the connections in the other direction (V1 to eye) are ten times as strong. That’s ten times the bandwidth for sending predictions towards the eye than for sending image data from the eye.

[1] It is important to understand that, when we talk about predictive processing, the word “error” is used in the Computer Science sense, as a necessary and desirable part of a learning system, and not in the Audiolingual sense of something wrong, that is to be avoided by all means.

Barrett, 2017: p. 61
Barrett, 2017: p. 61

So, where do the predictions come from? Each is a product of a distillation of all previous relevant experiences. I like to think of them as templates that can be used to make predictions about any given situation. The technical term is “priors.” There is evidence that one of the things we do while we are asleep is boil the day’s experiences down into priors (Lewis & Durant, 2011).

These templates are highly nuanced. For a start, they are probabilistic. A prior for eggs doesn’t just say, “If there’s an egg, it’s probably white.” It says something much more like, “There’s a 73% chance it will be white and a 27% chance it will be brown.”

Secondly, they are situational, adding: “white or brown, unless you are in the Philippines, where there’s a 7.3% chance it will be purple” and the other probabilities change accordingly; or “unless it’s Easter, when they might be dyed all kinds of colours, or even turn out to be made of chocolate.”

Finally, all this is unconscious. We are seldom, if ever, aware of making, updating, or using priors. We are usually not aware when our predictions are confirmed. Even paying attention to something slightly out of the ordinary can be an unconscious process, but at times our prediction errors register as a surprise, a bump, or even a shock. Whether we are aware of it or not, though, the process of figuring out—of trying to fit the new information into existing priors and adjusting the priors to fit new information—has begun. Fueled by dopamine, your brain will be driven to observe, to check, to compare, to ask people questions (as I did in that long-ago Manila marketplace), even to google, until some kind of sense has been made of the new input, and our priors have been adjusted to accommodate the new understanding.

If there is something familiar about this whole process, it is because it is the same process from which we make our living. It is learning. Whether the input is a purple egg or a new grammatical structure, the process of prediction, error detection, and adjustment of priors is the same. It is the process that occurs every time a student encounters a new word, grammatical structure, or discourse pattern. It is the process we help along when we point out a student’s mistake in oral or written production.

Which brings me, at long last, to the connection to our students. Like any other learning, the learning of a language is a cyclical process of prediction, error detection, and adjustment of mental models (priors). The challenge for us as language teachers is to design and conduct language learning activities that are built on our understanding of the process.

When I use the purple eggs example in my discussions with students preparing to study abroad, I sometimes end by explaining that they are hard-boiled, ready-salted eggs, easily distinguished by the purple dye from the water they are boiled in. Sometimes, though, I don’t. I just leave the students to figure it out, expecting no particular thanks from them for the dopamine rush that searching for an explanation will bring them. So, that led me to decide something: I am not going to share my thoughts on how an understanding of predictive processing can inform our approach to language teaching. I’ll leave that to you to puzzle over. But not for long: expect to read more about predictive processing and language learning in future issues of the Think Tank. Until then, enjoy the dopamine. (You’re welcome!)

References

  • Archer, C. N. (1986). Culture bump and beyond. In J. M. Valdes (Ed.), Culture bound (pp. 170-178). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press

  • Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  • Clark, A. (2015). Surfing uncertainty: Prediction, action, and the embodied mind. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

  • Lewis, P. A., & Durant, S. J. (2011). Overlapping memory replay during sleep build cognitive schemata. Trends in Cognitive Science, 15(8), 343-351.

  • Oberg, C. (1960). Culture shock: Adjustment to new environments. Practical Anthropology, 7(4), 177-182.

  • Ryan, S. M. (2019). Of fish, sugar, and discard plies: Learning from difference. MindBrainEd Think Tank, 5(4), 4-9.

Stephen M. Ryan teaches at Sanyo Gakuen University, in Okayama, when he is not travelling in search of new puzzles.

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