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Book Review: The Experience Machine

This 2023 book by Andy Clark is subtitled “How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality,” and it was this subtitle that drew me to the book. Partly because I’m a follower of guerrilla ontologist Robert Anton Wilson, who has written extensively on the subject of reality manipulation.

When you pick up this book from the shelf it’s a bit intimidating — but that’s mostly due to its academic nature and a substantial proportion of the back pages being filled with references, footnotes, and appendices. But don’t be frightened, it’s approachable, readable, and definitely insightful.

The odd title of the book refers to the central premise that the mind doesn’t observe reality then draw conclusions; it creates what we perceive based on experience-derived expectations. Simplified to a 1970s bumper sticker, “You are what you think.” But this isn’t armchair conjecture, it’s backed by cognitive science.

I finished the book with dozens of notes, here are a few of them:

  • What we perceive today is deeply rooted in what we experienced yesterday, and all the days before that. Every aspect of our experience comes to us filtered by the brain’s best expectations rooted in our past histories.
  • We see the world by predicting the world (which is what conjurers exploit).
  • There was a fascinating 2001 study of hearing music (and sometimes, indistinct voices) within white noise. This is the brain predicting ahead to make sense of the sound.
  • The prediction effect is why you can’t tickle yourself. Tickling relies on the element of surprise. It’s also why drinking water when you’re thirsty is immediately satisfying, even though clearly the water hasn’t been absorbed by the body yet.
  • Schizophrenia might be the brain’s predictive system gone haywire.
  • The placebo effect is well documented, but there’s also a “nocebo” effect in which the patient knows they are receiving an inert substance, but it still works just as well.

There was one part of the book that I found somewhat jarring. Clark seems to be the rare scientist who is willing to challenge orthodoxy, which makes his derisive dismissal of all things “supernatural” such a surprise. It’s an odd, unsubstantiated knee-jerk section that otherwise undermines his cultivated image of being open-minded. Particularly so, since it follows lengthy, positive discussions of psychedelics, yoga, A.I. sentience, and other fringe topics.

I would never have predicted (ahem) that I’d read two books on psychology this year, and enjoy them. But here we are. If you’d like to explore this fascinating topic — which the author deftly links to “A.I.” — then I foresee you enjoying this book too.

I bought my copy at Barbara’s Bookstore, but you can find it at the Amazon too.

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