Predictive Processing Explains “Show, don’t Tell”

The predictive processing model of whole brain function gives a pretty good explanation for why the advice “show it, don’t tell it” works so well.

When you tell someone, you’re giving them a higher level narrative, which ostenbily generates sensory predictions. These sensory predictions don’t necessarily line up with the current observed sensory inputs, and so it’s easy to reject the narrative.

Perhaps if the person you tell trusts you, and finds you interesting and compelling, they may begin searching their memory for experiences that would fit this high-level narrative. The set of experiences they could search through is so massive, that the search is unlikely to provide results.  Searches are expensive.

“When she walked by, all the guys turned their heads.”

I remember learning “show, don’t tell”, because of that sentence.  That sentence created imagery in my imagination. In other words, it created something that looks – internally – very much like sensory input.  That internal imagery is easier to accept from a stranger, or someone you don’t have high trust with, because it’s generally safer to listen to a story than to hear a moral or theme or a core reality model.

If the high-level narrative ends up simplifying the imagined “sensory” input, then the other person’s brain accepts the high level narrative. If the high level narrative ends up complicating sensory input – which includes input from memories and past experiences – then it will be rejected.

So don’t go around telling people “gender is a social construct.” They’ve probably already heard this before and will just reject it immediately if they don’t already agree.

Remind them that George Washington wore a long, curly, powdered wig, high heels, and some makeup. Ask them, if someone did that today, would we say they weren’t a man? Does this mean George Washington wasn’t a man? Or does it mean that “what it means to be a man” was different back then?

Show, don’t tell. Higher level narratives are easier to accept when they simplify the other party’s cognitive load. You can help create that load in a non-offensive manner, by priming their imagination with descriptive imagery.

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