The Two Faces of Feedback

by Matthew Turco
April 1998

Only two kinds of feedback loops exist in nature -- negative and positive. These aren't value judgments, only descriptions of how different kinds of learning occur and how we deal with adversity. As you know, adversity is unavoidable. It comes in all shapes and sizes and doesn't discriminate. Who we are and what we are capable of has much to do with how we've responded to adversity. Learning to differentiate the two feedback loops will illustrate why we often fall short of realizing our true genius potential, despite our best intentions.

Negative feedback loops create "comfort zones". A common illustration of these loops is a thermostat. If you set a thermostat to 72 degrees and turn it on, the heating/air conditioning unit will take constant measurements of the temperature. If it gets too hot, it will turn on the AC. If it get too cold, it will turn on the heater. Thus, the room stays within a predetermined "comfort zone." Adversity is considered anything that causes it to move outside the comfort zone (thus triggering whatever mechanisms it has to return).

Positive feedback loops create expanding patterns. A common (yet annoying) illustration of this is a public address system (PA). Whenever a microphone picks up the output of a speaker, it feeds the sound back into the amplifier, which then goes back out through the speaker even louder, which then goes back into the microphone. What soon results is a piercing, high-pitched sound. Positive feedback loops don't require adversity. They naturally spring up everywhere growing occurs.

Your physiological systems are primarily negative feedback systems that are designed to keep all of the various levels (temperature, hormones, blood sugar, etc) within acceptable "comfort zones". For example, in order to keep your blood sugar level within an acceptable range, your pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin whenever sugar (carbohydrate) is ingested. Whenever protein is ingested, a different hormone called glucagon is secreted. This process creates a negative feedback loop that maintains blood sugar levels as long as the body is able to manufacture just enough insulin and/or glucagon (which is a topic in itself).


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Positive feedback isn't very useful in most of the systems in our bodies. In fact, it would be dangerous. Imagine eating a piece of fruit (a carbohydrate). What would happen if a second organ sensing the increased insulin levels would send the pancreas the signal to secrete more (to expand its pattern)? It wouldn't be long before you'd go into insulin shock and die?not a very useful process.

One of the only bodily systems that thrives on positive feedback is the neurological system. Whenever the brain responds intently to perceived stimuli, it often builds newer, higher quality patterns on top of the existing patterns. In other words, it goes into a positive feedback loop as it expands on previous perceptions to take in more information. Higher quality perceptions can be measured in a lot of ways? the amount of detail, the number or size of patterns brought into conscious awareness, the diversity of the sensory patterns (visual, auditory, kinesthetic), or simply the relevancy of the perception toward the organism's goal. All the brain needs is an evolving outcome and its natural genius will flourish.

However, there's a catch (you knew it wouldn't be this easy, didn't you?).

The brain is first and foremost a biological organ. This means that its primary function is to contribute to the organism's overall welfare by avoiding life-or-death threats. It does this through negative feedback loops, much like any other organ. Genius levels of mental skill are of secondary importance to the brain (and a very recent evolutionary addition to neurology). And this is where things can get really complicated.

Probably the best layman's explanation of how the neurological system creates negative feedback loops is the book Natural Brilliance by Paul Scheele. Psychologists have observed that most people will do far more to avoid pain that to experience pleasure. Yet, no one really knows why. Well, I do?and so does Paul, even if he uses a different model to explain it.

Here's what we know so far. Contrary to what geneticists and $200/hour psychotherapists believe, most "neuroses" are not the result of defects in the brain. Most aberrant behavior is the result of the brain working perfectly within a negative feedback loop. Whenever the brain senses a threat to survival, it learns to avoid whatever behavior or environmental situation is associated with that threat. Whether those associations are "real" or imagined (created, generalized, or distorted) doesn't matter as much as protecting the organism. The brain, always operating with a positive intent, creates a limiting pattern that inhibits the individual past a certain point.

Granted, these negative feedback loops come in quite handy when there are legitimate threats to the individual. However, given the relative absence of real physical threats on modern Earth, the brain often creates most of its negative feedback loops around imagined threats. These imagined threats often trigger emotional pain.

After all, what is pain? Pain is nothing more than the neurological representation of what is bad for the individual and/or species. These emotional expressions are meant to convey important messages. Unfortunately, emotional pain is so ubiquitous in most of our lives?whether from family, friends, authority figures, or even strangers?that the brain often overproduces needless limiting patterns that ultimately inhibit our potential.

Remember, the purpose of the negative feedback loop is to protect the organism from potential harm in order to promote its primary outcome?survival. And the brain will often use its chemical/hormonal triggers in order to inhibit what it perceives to be dangerous behavior. So while a "neurosis" and its manifestations may seem self-destructive to the outside observer, it makes perfect sense on some level of that individual's subjective reality.


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My purpose here is not to show you how to "rewire" limiting patterns that hinder your progress to achieving your outcomes. I'm only pointing out the difference between the two feedback loops so that we can better understand accelerated learning. If you wish to pursue negative feedback loops, I suggest studying Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), hypnosis and their derivatives. But I do wish to return to the positive feedback loops while keeping the limiting factors of negative feedback in mind.

All brains start out heavily seeking and creating positive feedback loops. This is how we learn and grow so quickly (we're all born geniuses). Unfortunately, as we get older, negative feedback gains prominence. We begin to learn of "failure" and bivalent judgments (right/wrong) that promote limiting patterns. Many of us find it easier to avoid adversity rather than seek it and conquer it. Our ranges of behavior begin to narrow, and we begin exhibiting a consistent "personality" and "intelligence".

Some continue to seek only one level of positive feedback at the expense of the others. For example, some seek intellectual gains (higher mental skills) as a way of compensating for poor physical or social skills that were stifled through negative feedback (limiting responses to adversity). The levels of intellectual ability they are able to achieve can be remarkable, but ultimately their failure to pursue physical or social competence will limit them. Others exclusively seek physical gains (the dumb jock) or social gains (the socialite) as a means of compensation. Many have chosen to isolate themselves and "play to their strengths"?a euphemism for settling for what they think God limited them to.

Very few use adversity to fuel them toward well-rounded greatness (physically, mentally, and socially). The processes are nearly the same for achieving all types of genius-level abilities?create positive feedback loops and avoid imaginary negative feedback loops. However, it is rarely achieved on all three levels. Adversity has created most of our historical geniuses (as well as famous idiot-savants). Unfortunately, they knew not how the reached their heights, and thus left us with only scattered clues.

Image streaming and its derivatives are probably the most powerful positive feedback loops your brain can create. By verbally describing your internal perceptions (especially your reflexive ones), your descriptions are fed back into your brain (via your senses) and prompt higher quality patterns. Therein lies the key to increasing any skill/ability, and thus overall intelligence.

As long as a limiting pattern doesn't inhibit a skill/ability, true greatness is inevitable. Unfortunately, life is rarely kind enough to let us thrive without having to master the elimination of negative feedback loops. Any irrational fears, lack of motivation or any incongruence that you feel toward an outcome that you desire is the result of those deep-seated limiting patterns that rob you of your true potential.

So pay attention to both types of feedback. Learn and enjoy image streaming, photoreading, and all the other great accelerated learning techniques. But don't let limiting patterns rob you of the ability to fully express the natural genius that you were born to be.

©1998 by Matthew Turco


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©1996-2004 Matthew Turco unless otherwise noted

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