Why Expectations Matter

So in a recent episode, I shared with you what I refer to as the yanny laurel audio illusion that almost broke the internet a few years ago. And in that particular illusion, from the exact same snippet of audio, some people would hear the word yanny, some people would hear the word laurel. Two very different sounding words, but generated by the same audio. And as I mentioned in that episode, I presented that illusion there to illustrate the concept that what we experience in the movie in our minds is a creation of our brains. It does not reflect what’s actually out there in the world, but rather our brain’s best guess at what’s out there based on the inputs that it has received.

So remember, our brain is sitting in the darkness of our skull and trying to take the electrical signals that were generated by sensory input and then reverse engineer where those signals came from. And by the time something bubbles up into our conscious awareness, whether it’s vision, something we see, something we smell, taste, or in this case, something we hear, it has already undergone all sorts of processing by neural circuits that are beneath our awareness. And in that episode, I mentioned that this was likely one reason why what we hear when we’re playing our instrument in real time isn’t always going to be the same as what we hear when we’re listening back to a recording of ourselves. And that’s part of the rationale for why it’s useful to record ourselves periodically.


So what our brain constructs as our audio experience, as the sounds that we hear when we’re playing, isn’t likely the same as what it constructs when listening back to a recording because our expectations are different. So to illustrate the role of expectations in how our brain processes sensory information and how those expectations shape what we actually experience, I present to you the brainstorm/green needle illusion. So first I’m going to throw a word on the screen and play some audio for you. 

All right, so I showed you the word brainstorm and most of you heard the word brainstorm in that audio I played. Now I’m going to throw a second word on the screen and play the audio. 

All right, so that time you saw the word green needle and most of you heard the word green needle.

Now the thing is, the audio in both of those cases was the exact same thing. And yet you experienced that as two very different words. So in these two different cases, it wasn’t the audio that was changing, but rather it was what your brain was doing to that audio before presenting it to your conscious awareness. But it gets even better. So now I’m going to put both words up and the word you hear is going to change depending on which word you focus on. So now, just move from one word to the next and see how the word you hear changes.

Okay, so hopefully some of you just had your minds blown. And what this illustrates is not only that what we perceive in the movie in our minds is not the ground truth of what’s happening out there in the world, but that also what we experience or our perceptions are profoundly shaped by our expectations. So number one, this explains how we can easily hear two different things from the exact same audio source, as discussed in that last episode. But it also has implications for so many other things well beyond the realm of music, including implications about the beliefs and expectations that we have about ourselves. And perhaps the area where the role of expectations has been most well studied is in the realm of the placebo effect and its sister, the nocebo effect. So it’s well documented that expecting a particular positive outcome from a drug or other type of medical intervention makes the outcome much more likely to occur.


So that’s the placebo effect. And likewise, expecting a negative outcome to occur makes that negative outcome much more likely to happen. And again, these differences in outcomes in what we experience have nothing to do with the thing itself, the drug or the intervention or whatnot, and everything to do with what we expect to happen to us. Now, as you may know, for a very long time, the prevailing dogma in neuroscience was that the brain could not change itself after development ended. So once the brain wired itself up after your early childhood, it was done doing so and couldn’t do any further rewiring. And closely related to this idea was the notion of innate talent or ability, the idea that some brains were naturally artistic, some weren’t. Some naturally good at math and science while others weren’t, and some naturally good at music while others were not. And these innate abilities that really couldn’t be modified were said to be because of that fixed wiring.


We now know that the story of innate talent and ability is entirely wrong, that the brain is in constant flux throughout our lives and is capable of major rewiring in response to our needs and experiences for as long as we live. And that learning anything, including music, is grounded in this ability of our brain to change itself. So it’s not about the brain we’re born with, but about the brain that we build through practice. And whether we’re successful has everything to do with how we practice, because it is practice that stimulates the brain to change and it is how we practice that determines whether that change occurs in a direction that we desire.


And all of this science around the role of expectations just emphasizes how important it is to be careful with what we assert to be true. Because once that happens, that creates an expectation. And that expectation itself can create the illusion that that thing is true, creating what’s known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. So if we expect to struggle to learn music because we don’t think we have innate talent, then we are much more likely to struggle and give up in frustration. If on the other hand, we expect to be successful because we know that it’s all about how we practice, we are much more likely to be successful. Once again, nothing more than expectations here can profoundly shape the trajectory of our lives, which for me is why it’s so important to present the evidence of why the concept of innate talent is wrong, as well as why the mindset and attitudes that we have about music or anything else we set out to do are so incredibly important.


Having worked one on one with tens of thousands of people over the years, I know that the idea that our expectations can so powerfully impact our lives can seem hard to grasp and even hard to believe. But without a doubt, our mindset or our expectations can either be our greatest enemy or our greatest ally in our quest to achieve any goal and in our quest to make the most of this incredible gift that we all have sitting inside of our heads. But my hope is that this fascinating and powerful illustration of the role of expectations might make that concept feel a little bit more tangible.


All right, that’s all for this episode. If you like these Brainjo Bites, you’ll likely enjoy the book, The Laws of Brainjo, which you can find on Amazon and other online retailers. All right, thanks so much for watching or listening and I will see you in the next Brainjo Bite.