Potty Training, Predictive Processing, and Agency

We recently potty-trained our three year old daughter. This process was a great chance to integrate my understanding of predictive processing with a real life case of personal growth. Potty training a child is also a great example of how understanding yourself as a computational system can help you achieve your own personal growth.

One of the books I read described the potty training process as follows: You take your child’s diaper off, remind them to go potty periodically. You expect accidents. Over time, you’re helping them gradually move through three phases of awareness:

  1. I just peed
  2. I’m peeing
  3. I’m about to pee

This third phase is where the magic happens, because it’s a prediction of what’s about to happen.   Once your toddler realizes they are about to pee, you want them to run to the potty. In order to make that happen, it’s useful to sing them a bunch of songs and read them stories about going to the potty.

Daniel Tiger, Personal Growth Guru

A Case Study

In effect, what you’re doing is building up your child’s belief in a narrative that says, “When I have to pee, I go potty.” Here’s the ever-helpful Daniel Tiger:

“When you have to potty, stop and go right away. Flush and wash and be on your way.” 

The whole song is worth a watch because it’s a great template for how you can help yourself grow.  Notice there are a two key elements to the song:

  • A “Trigger” – when you have to go potty. This trigger is described in detail. It feels like a wiggly feeling in your stomach.  The first part of potty training is helping your child to reliably compute this signal.
  • An “Action” – a course of action to take upon recognizing the trigger signal. The action in this case is to go to the toilet. The second part of potty training is helping your child bind the signal to the action, so that it becomes the prediction seen as most likely to occur.
  • An “Acknowledgement” – a lot of toddlers don’t want to go potty because they’re busy playing, and playing is fun.  The line of the song that says “Flush and wash, and be on your way” is a way of reminding the child that they can get back to having fun right away.

Stories Prime the Predictive Cache

The Daniel Tiger song helps children associate the trigger with the action. Remember, the stories we experience shape our expectations of realityeven if they aren’t factually true!  Reading stories and singing songs about children who feel the need to go potty, and then use the toilet, adds support for the Bayesian relationship between these two concepts. In some cases, this property of media is harmful. If we only read stories about male scientists, children might make the false association that science is something only for boys and men.

In the case of potty training, repeatedly reading, seeing, and singing stories about fictitious children who feel the need to use the potty, and then go and use the toilet makes it more likely that this prediction (“I will now use the potty”) will surface in the moment we’d like it to. The “flush and wash and be on your way” part is a way of preventing another, ‘default’ prediction (“I will keep playing”), from winning the contest.

Potty training, when viewed through the predictive processing model, is like a template you can use to change in yourself. Instead of thinking in terms of “willpower” and “personal failures”,  you’re just programming a computational system that happens to be made of meat and bones, and respond to your name. You’re rewriting your own code!

Generalized Recipe for Personal Change

You may recognize this advice because it’s generic to the point of being well known, but I think these connections to predictive processing are novel:

Have a Specific Goal

“Eat more vegetables” is too vague of a goal to be actionable. Having a specific trigger and a specific action allows you to use your imagination to vividly picture the exact moment where your want your behavior to change from its current default.  “In the morning when I wake up, I will cook an omelette with veggies for breakfast” is a very specific story. If you tell yourself this story, you can visualize every single step of the way.  The concrete sensory details of the story increase the chances that your desired action will surface as a prediction will when you want it to. When there are no concrete details, it’s much harder to get the trigger signal to reliably fire.

Imagine Your Success in Detail

So don’t just say “I should eat more vegetables,” See yourself opening the refrigerator and grabbing that bag of pre-mixed salad you got at Costco because you told yourself it was a good idea to eat more veggies. Remember the nagging feeling you had at the time you bought it, thinking those veggies would go to waste, and give that doubt the middle finger. You’re cooking breakfast, motherfucker! Open that bag up and smell the mix of kale, broccoli and spinach that will leave you feeling like a champ. Smile a big smile because you’re doing this. And on and on;  you get the idea.  

When you imagine your success, mix in sensory details (sights, sounds, smells) with feelings (pride, contentment, agency) etc). By faking all these internal signals, you’ll integrate this false memory into your brain’s cache of situation -> suggestion action. Then, instead of needing “willpower” to “do the right thing” in the moment, the right choice will just unfold naturally.

The more specific your goal is, the better predictive processing is going to work. Instead of linking vague concepts such as “I am about to eat” -> “I should eat more veggies”, you’ll be linking together specific sensory stimuli on multiple channels, with a precise, relevant course of action that can be taken in the moment. The feeling of a cold wooden floor on your feet in the morning, the early morning light, and the quiet of the house will become linked to predictions of an an omelette that tastes of savory egg, cool avocado, snobby california kale, and garlicky, butter-infused mushrooms.

Have Believable Goals

This last one here is super important. Every time you try to accomplish a goal and fail, you’re accumulating evidence for your belief in the “I can’t accomplish my goals” narrative. On the other hand, every time you successfully accomplish a goal – even a tiny one – you are building support for the “I can accomplish my goals” narrative. That narrative is critical for your success and contentment as an adult.  If you don’t want to feel pushed around by life, you need to believe you can accomplish your goals, and the best way to do this is to start small and build upon a series of small successes. 

The thing about these tiny successes is that they never go away. Every time you set an intention and follow through, even if the results are washed out by time, the fact that you did so, remains in your memory and can give you strength.

Accomplishing even tiny goals has an effect somewhat like compound interest. The more tiny things you accomplish, the more confident you feel that you’ll be able to accomplish further goals, and thus the more challenges you’ll take on. If you don’t think you can accomplish any goals, start with something tiny like making a habit of smiling when you wake up in the morning, or brushing your teeth for exactly two minutes using a timer, before you go to bed.

If you normally drink every night, don’t swear off drinking forever.  Tell yourself you’ll go one night without drinking. Just one! And then the next night, see if you can go two, and so on.  If you make it to 8 nights, and then crash the next time, don’t worry. Celebrate having made it to eight nights, rather than focusing too much on not making it 16.

Celebrate All Successes, Regardless of their Size

I went from feeling that I was incapable of accomplishing my goals – because it seemed like this had never happened –  to having strong confidence that I can accomplish lots more changes in my life. I’ve lost 40 pounds, put on strength, dropped a number of bad habits, and cultivated plenty of good ones. And yet even now, I still celebrate whenever I make a tiny, positive decision, such as saying ‘no’ to an extra piece of chocolate, or choosing to go to bed half an hour earlier, or exercising for a tiny bit.

These celebrations keep me from seeing myself as a cruel taskmaster, and instead seeing myself as a loving coach who just wants the best for me. 

The World Needs Heroes

You don’t need me to tell you how screwy the world is right now. I believe we will make the world much better. A lot of this change will come from all of us, individually, making smaller choices that are better for us, both individually and for our communities. The modern world is so far from our ancestral environment that I think any human being who has their shit together as an adult is performing an act of heroism. So get out there, be the hero the world needs, and cook some vegetables with your dinner!

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