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The Priming Principle

  • 10 min read

In our day-to-day life experience, we mostly associate our idea of “having a brain” with the thoughts we hear inside our head.

The math problem we’re solving. The grocery list we’re writing down. The question whether your neighbor’s hot wife really looks at you the way you think she’s looking at you or if it’s just your imagination.  And whether that thought makes you a bad person or if it’s really just a normal fantasy and your wife probably thinks the same things about the husband. That ungrateful bitch. I’m sure she’s fantasizing about him right now. Why is she always spending so much time in the bath room? It can’t take that long to make pretty eyes look pretty. Not that I’m jealous or anything, it’s just… She needs to stop saying hi to him when we see him coming out of the house. Everyone knows what that means. And it’s the way she looks at him when she says it.  You don’t look at somebody like that when there’s nothing there.

Anyway, in reality your brain is constantly processing a lot more information than you are aware of.
When you pick up your phone (or laptop) to read this , your mind was able to discern that object as separate from its surroundings. Then it recognized the shape and color of the book and linked that to the concept “book” inside your database of known objects. Where it remembered what to do with that thing. Not to mention how to do it and which neurons to fire or muscles to move.

Now, while you are watching this page, it adjusts your vision so that the 2 overlapping images from your separate eyes are blended together to form one picture without a hole in the middle.

And when you decide to read what’s on it, it knows which letters on the page you intend to read, even though your eyes are actually watching every letter on the page all at once.

This is the part where the priming principle come in.  When you are reading a word, or listening to a person speak, your brain is already predicting which words are most likely to come next based on earlier experiences.

It pre-loads a couple of directions the sentence is most likely to go in, and when the next word comes, it uses it to validate which of those directions the sentence is going in and repeats the same process.

This is needed because otherwise we’d have way too much processing to do after every word, and then go back at the end of every sentence to put those words together and interpret the meaning.

So before the words come, your brain already picks multiple possible meanings based on keywords and grammar, then keeps going with the most likely route.

It’s a bit like driving a highway without any maps. You’re not entirely sure where to go, so you just keep following the signs that are most likely to be the correct ones and looking for verification that you’re still on the right track.

Because of this, your brain is able to interpret information even when there’s important pieces missing. You can literally leave out some very important words from a ___ and your __ will still be able to understand what it ___.

It fills in the blanks with the words it believes are most likely to belong there.

They could be “conversation, brain, means” or “sentence, mind, says”. It doesn’t matter. It could even be “command”“slave” and “needs to do” (Though it would say a lot about you if you picked that intuitively over the first examples). The important thing to remember is that your brain already primed itself based on future information to fill in the gaps.

The reason you knew which words to pick to fill in the gaps (and why you most likely didn’t pick the last examples), is that your brain had already put together a context to interpret it in, based on everything you read before that sentence.

This priming effect, is something your brain is doing all the time. Even when you are completely unaware of it, to create a context in which it can interpret any information you receive in the near future. Which it’s influencing everything you think or feel. When there is some information missing. Which there always is. It uses the primed context to fill in the blanks for you.


What Context Are You Priming Your Brain With?

The information we are constantly bombarded with influences the context in which we interpret any new things we read or experience.

Let’s say for example, you consider it important to keep up with current events. I just went to for a minute and here’s some of the most prominent words taken from the headlights I saw on the front page:

  • Murder mystery
  • North Korea
  • Death
  • Obsession
  • Russian spy
  • Deadly storm
  • 500 African migrants storm border
  • Boy cries
  • Losing legs
  • Car bomb kills 3-year old
  • Crisis

That’s it!  I didn’t even click anything or scroll down yet. Now what sort of context does this set for your brain?  How will this influence your thoughts throughout the day?  Probably something like:

“I’m in danger. These are horrible times. The threat of unexpected death is anywhere. I’m getting spied on. People from other countries are dangerous. I need to watch my back. Constant stress.”

You may not think these thoughts consiously, but you will watch your back a little more. You’ll take less risks. You’ll be just a little paranoid about leaving your email account open. And when you need to ask someone for directions, you’ll skip the bearded immigrant in favor of the first white person. Even though you’re not racist otherwise’

Does that mean CNN is a bad news channel?

No, it just means news channels are bad information channels. Because when people have something to be afraid about, they’ll want to stay informed. They’ll watch your channel every day, read your paper and follow your website. And they’ll do your promotion by sharing the important message with all their friends.

So the first thing you’ll need to do to create an environment with a more filtered inflow is information is:

  • Cancel your newspapers subscription (online & digital)
  •  Stop watching televised news
  • Stop going to news sites or block them if you have to.

Will this make you ignorant? No. If anything  important happens in the world, the news will reach you any way. Cause everyone likes to talk about that important stuff.

And while it may seem important to “stay informed” about those events, that’s really just because you were raised to believe it is.  Let’s have an honest look at some of the things covered in the news and how important it is to be informed of them.

Terrorism: The goal of terrorism is to scare you. And it works. People are scared of unpredictable strikes.

‘’Where’s the next one gonna be?  My uncles old ‘high school buddy took the plane only 2 weeks earlier!  It could’ve been him.’’

But when you think about it, there’s no reason to.  You can be scared of random people blowing themselves up in your city  one day.  But by that logic, you could also be scared of going into traffic and randomly getting into an accident.  The second is more likely to happen.  So why live in fear?

Politics: If anything changes in politics that does have an impact on your life, you will find out. If you don’t, that means nothing has changed and you can go on leading your life. And if you do care, the best place would be to start locally. Not to watch the latest news about the orange-skinned president of the United States and complain about the laws he makes while you live in Europe.

Sports: Other people playing sports literally have no impact on your life whatsoever. It just doesn’t matter who wins. You may think it does, but unless they’re your best friends (in which case they’ll tell you any way and you’ll probably have seats to the game), there is simply no way in the universe in which it would matter. So there you are. Relieved of yet another one of your information consumption duties. Thank me later.

Celebrity news: Same as with sports. Except that it’s even worse, since they’re not really doing anything. You’re just watching people you don’t know leading their day to day lives while you could be busy actually leading a life of your own.

The weather: This is the one exception where you do need to follow the news. This way you can have something to talk about while pretending to get to know each other before you Netflix and chill without actually sharing anything about yourself. Really though. You’ll see what the weather looks like when you wake up. So unless you live in an area with recurring hurricanes, or are planning your vacation to the beach, it’s not important to follow on a daily basis.

Now what about social media?

Say that you wake up, and you’ve effectively stopped following the news because you’re a smart person who makes good decisions.  So instead you spend your breakfast checking up with what your friends are doing, saying and sharing.

Keeping up with your friends is generally a lot more important than reading the news. It has a bigger impact on both your lives. However, if those people are important to you, the keeping up will once again happen automatically when you meet with them.

But the problem is not those friends. I’m sure your close friends are awesome. And since you like them in real life, you’ll problem enjoy the things they share. The real problems is everything that comes up from other sources when you open Facebook. Irrelevant ads, clickbait articles, more news, and every thing every casual acquaintance you vaguely remember and their dog has eaten, posed with, or been pissed off about.

What context does this set for your brain?

“Wasting time.  Useless.  Low quality.  Unimportant.  Petty Drama.  Distraction.  Purposeless.  Not making choices yourself.  Being without direction.”

The solution here is to start a Zero-tolerance policy for bullshit on your social media accounts.

No matter how much you like the people in real life, unfollow anyone who posts:

  • Endless whining or complaining
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Clickbait articles
  • Selfies for no other reason than posting selfies
  • Attention seeking statuses
  • Celebrity gossip
  • Sports (unless they are playing)
  • Politics
  • Articles that make you interested to read them even though you know they don’t matter one bit

This way you’ll either end up with an empty news feed (ahh… What a glorious feeling!!!) or a news feed that only contains positive, empowering messages and interesting information that’s useful and relevant for you.

The amazing thing about having a Facebook news feed is that with a minimal amount of effort you can turn it into a highly personalized news channel that contains only the information that caters to your taste.

The downside is that if you don’t do this, it become a nasty free-for-all for advertisers, propaganda machines, time wasters and terrorists to fight for your attention and emotional investment.

Think of it this way:

Just like you keep your body healthy by avoiding the bad foods in the supermarket and buying the good stuff, you keep your brain healthy by not letting it consume the stuff that’s unhealthy and limiting yourself to information that’s healthy for your mental state.

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