Another Perspective on Expectations

I love my husband dearly because he is the perfect mix between soft and hard; intellectual and emotional (ok – he needs to learn to cry a bit more); passive and aggressive (but not both at the same time:); rational and irrational (ok he is a lot more rational); and fun and strict. You get tthe point.

As I said in my previous post on expectations, we both have been talking a lot about “What expectations are and if they are reasonable and necessary”. My post was a bit all over the place and emotionally driven. He wrote something that I wanted to share that is much more abstract and scientific.

I have to admit when I first read it, I got lost in the first few paragraphs as it is quite scientific. But by the time I got to the end, I got his perspective and it gave me MORE to think about about expectations!

Whether one of us is “right” or one of us is “wrong” or both of us are “right” or both of us are “wrong”, I love that we both are thinking about it!

Here is his contribution:

“I have been reading a great book called “On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins that explores emerging neuroscience and how our brains work (I’ve had it for 4 years now and admit have read it sporadically but nonetheless am reading it again).

It is interesting because Jeff was the inventor of the Palm Pilot and Treo Smart phone (now somewhat extinct devices). What is fascinating in his book is the easy and clear way in which he breaks down how we both perceive and take in the world around us by exploring the way our neo cortex works.

In essence, he presents us with a model of a layered cortex wherein each of the layers connects from lower regions to higher regions. In the lowest region of the visual cortex, he described the saccades of eye movement and how we take in the billions of small bits of information every second with our eye. In short, our eyes are always jittering left and right and taking in fragments of our surroundings. These fragments enter our lower region of the cortex as disparate, disconnected bits of information. At this level, if we were to peer in to see what our brain was seeing it would be a bit messy and confusing. However, this is where the hierarchical structure of the cortex takes over. These spurious and large amounts of data are fed up a level to the next region where rather than looking at every piece of data, the region is given a pattern or as the author calls it an “invariant representation”. For example, each region in our brain has these types of short cuts, wherein the region sees a series of lines that are associated with the shape of an eye and the red of lips, etc, etc. The invariant representation of “face” is call upon instantly. Invariant, as it implies, means these things or representations don’t change much. The pattern has an association that the cortex region draws upon and reuses. There is no need to analyze all of the input. The pattern is there, the invariant representation is used and passed on to the next region. That region may draw on other features like colours and specific features that can then start to pass on to other regions to form recognition of specific individuals or things or places etc.

To get a real understanding of the science you really need to read Hawkins book, but the point is our brains eventually become trained to look and leverage patterns. Indeed, our brains start to expect these patterns and predict them. It is this very expectation and prediction of patterns that allows us to be such remarkably quick, efficient and successful creatures.

All of this is to say that we are wired to expect things. In fact without it our world becomes a much more difficult thing to manage. From a pure neuroscience perspective, imagine if we had to re interpret and assign everything we take in visually before we could recognize our surroundings. This is in fact how computers, until more recently, operated. When presented with new information, each piece needed to be analyzed, pieced together, and interpreted to form the whole picture. Not until the final picture was assembled would the device be able to recognize what it is.

Luckily, this is not how we work. So why would this not be the case for our social world? Why would this not be the case for our relationships with other human beings? Well the answer, in my mind, is that is must be.

So why am I writing this? Well it has been an increasing trend in our self help world of the “me” generation to declare that in life, if you are going to be happy, you are not to place expectations on others. The theory goes that if you place expectations on others, you are imposing, in a somehow less than honest or forthright way, displaced needs. These needs are a selfish indulgence that one needs to acknowledge but don’t dare integrate in to an expectation of how the world, or more importantly, the people in your world, should behave. In short, the mantra of this new philosophy is to place no expectations on others’ behaviour as this is sure to end in disappointment and dismay because they are individuals who you cannot control.

To me, this is akin to the example of the computer above. That somehow we can’t form invariant representations of behaviour or decency, or family love or relationship love, or friendship. To think that we can only take social or relationship inputs as they are fed to us, and that these need to be analyzed free of any expectation does not make much sense me. Indeed, what is likely happening is that we rely on the invariant representations of relationship based on how we have processed these things from very early on. Our brains are trained as we grow up both in the pure neuroscience way (as Hawkins describes) and in our social ways.

Perhaps those who are hold the “no expectations” approach to living with others ARE in fact drawing on representations of relationship that they have concluded are variant. In other words, they have trained themselves to come to expect failure and disappointment because they recognize no other patterns. So behaviours like a celebration of another’s success, throwing a birthday bash, or simply massaging your partner’s neck without prompting are not patterned for these individuals and as such these people have failed to form an invariant representation of that kind of relationship. Their brains are unable to draw in a pattern that will create happiness and success. They don’t have the pattern established. Instead they are stuck taking in inputs as each situation presents itself.

To put it in a more real world scenario, when someone is treating you like crap, or is never considerate, or never on time, or never expressing their feelings or intentions, this should recall a pattern of “this is bad” or “I don’t like this” because your invariant representation of relationship has a very different and distinct pattern. As such, the scenario should NOT be classified as “relationship” but as something entirely different like “bad relationship” or “asshole” or some other association.

In the end, perhaps the advocates of the “no expectation” club are in fact just like everyone else. They also have tons of expectations. Unfortunately however they have created stronger patterns of negative outcomes or patterns expectant of failure rather than those who have patterns of expectations around what is good. This includes how to be good to others and what to “expect” from those around you who fit the pattern of good.

Maybe the “no expectations” people simply just have the wrong expectations – as perhaps there is no such thing as “no expectations”. They may think that relationships are variant because in concluding this, they are simply relying on their own negative, invariant representation of relationship. Perhaps they need to experience what is a good relationship and start re forming their patterns and adopt an invariant representation of relationships that is good. Only then can they expect to have happiness by expecting things of others”.


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