Direct Experience vs. Mental Simulation In Decision Making

There are multiple ways to make a decision. Most of us rely on mental simulations in our mind to make decisions, instead of using direct experience as a guide. Before taking an action, we scan our memory for references.

References are often based on personal experience. Other times, we based our judgments on secondhand information from books, people, or other sources. Many times, we extrapolate from the little we know and reach conclusions. These conclusions are often incorrect.

You know not to touch the hot stove because you’ve suffered a burn in the past. That’s an example of a direct experience.

We avoid other behaviors because we feel certain we know the outcome, even though we’ve never had an actual experience to rely upon. You won’t jump of the roof of a building because you believe you’ll be hurt or worse. However, you’ve probably never suffered a significant fall.

Positive Choices

fitnessThese are both positive phenomena. However, sometimes we talk ourselves out of positive actions because we incorrectly assume the results will be negative. You have at least one incredible talent that you believe doesn’t exist.

You might want to be an artist, but believe your artistic ability is non-existent. Maybe you could’ve been the next Michael Jordan, but convinced yourself that your jump shot isn’t up to par. Are you certain that the cute girl at the grocery store would reject your date proposal?

Perhaps a friend told you that a particular person was dishonest, so you avoid them. Maybe your friend was wrong, or the other person was just having a bad day.

Short of risking life and limb, there’s no way to be 100% sure of anything without trying. In addition, one attempt often isn’t enough. You’ve been talking yourself out of many adventures and successes.

Mental Simulation In Reading

reading direct experience

Image courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis

One way of knowing what direct experience entails is knowing what it does not. A 2009 study of how reading works in the brain suggests that readers create vivid mental simulations of the sounds, sights, tastes and movements described in a textual narrative while simultaneously activating brain regions used to process similar experiences in real life.

Jeffrey M. Zacks, director of the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis, and his team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track real-time brain activity as study participants read and process individual words and short stories.

“Psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story,”

says Zacks.

The findings show that reading is by no means a passive exercise. Rather, readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative.

Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences. These data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.

Previous research has shown that when people read isolated words or phrases involving vivid visual or motor contents, brain activity in sensory and motor brain regions specifically related to those contents increased.

Nicole Speer, lead author of this study, says findings demonstrate that reading is by no means a passive exercise. Rather, readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative.

Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences. These data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.

“These results suggest that readers use perceptual and motor representations in the process of comprehending narrated activity, and these representations are dynamically updated at points where relevant aspects of the situation are changing,” says Speer.

Experiencing Life More Directly

There are a few strategies for basing your choices more on direct experiences. Try practicing some of these:

salsa dancing

Credit: wagdi.co.uk/Flickr

1. Prior to rejecting a decision, ask yourself how certain you are regarding the outcome. Imagine you want to take salsa lessons, but you’re convinced that you have no rhythm.

  • Does it matter? Even if it’s true, salsa lessons might be a great way to gain a little rhythm.
  • Are you certain that you don’t have rhythm? How do you know? Did someone tell you when you were 10 years old? Were they qualified to make that assessment? Is it possible that you didn’t have rhythm then, but you do now?
  • Is it possible that your assessment of your rhythmic abilities is incorrect?

2. Make a list of all the areas you believe you lack talent or ability. It might be public speaking, communicating with the opposite sex, writing, painting, music, sports, meeting new people, or anything else that comes to mind.

  • How can you be sure? A single failure means nothing. When you’ve failed 100 times, then it might be time to re-think. Before that point, you don’t have enough experience to be certain.
  • What if you’ve been wrong all along? How would your life change if you were actually able to do one or more of those items well?
playing music

Credit: fantastklywell Flickr

3. Determine that you’ll rely on experience rather than your mental simulations. Make the effort to prove yourself right or wrong. You can’t be certain of anything until you’ve had the actual experience. Use your brain for ideas and then test them.

4. Avoid taking your results personally. If it turns out that you have no athletic ability, you’ll survive. Can’t carry a tune? There are worse things in life. It can be easy to talk yourself out of new experiences if success is the only acceptable outcome. Seek the truth.

Life was meant to be experienced in real time. Why guess at outcomes when you can discover the truth with certainty?

Live your life on the playing field instead of simulating it in your mind.

Nicole K. Speer, Jeremy R. Reynolds, Khena M. Swallow, and Jeffrey M. Zacks
Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences
Psychol Sci. 2009 Aug; 20(8): 989–999