Viewing your experiences through a PID Controller


Heading into work today I was thinking about how we are the sum of the experiences we’ve had.  Our brains have been trained to recognize patterns in people and events and we use these patterns to “expect” what will happen next. Sometimes things don’t go the way we expected them and this makes us distraught, stressed, or upset.  And then the image of a PID controller popped into my head, as I’m sure it would have in yours.

PID controllers exist in a field called Feedback Control, and they are a system level element one can employ to control a system.  Typically a PID controller watches a sensor, like a thermometer, spedometer, or other …meter and will change it’s output to move the sensor reading where it wants it.  Of course a PID controller doesn’t really want anything, some person typically tells it what it wants to do, by providing different coefficients for the proportional, integral, and derivative perspective on the measurements the controller makes.

The coefficients tell the controller how much of it’s output should be based on each measurement perspective.  The proportional coefficient controls how important the measurement right now is.  The integral coefficient controls how important the sum of all previous measurements is. The derivative coefficient controls how important the recent change in measurements is.

The output of the controller goes back into the system, where it effects some change that the sensor measures, thus the feedback portion.

When thinking about this in the context of “we are the sum of our experiences”, I wondered: that sounds a lot like the integral.  What about the proportional?  What about the difference?  How do or should these map into our reaction to events.  

Here’s my interpretation:

  • The proportional is how one is feeling right now.  What is your current state?  Tired? Excited? Angry?
  • The difference is how you react to change.  If you are like most people, you’re pretty uncomfortable with change, though many people love it and thrive in it.  Do you see change is a source of fear, or is it an opportunity?
  • The integral is your memories of how things have happened in the past, the way our brains have been programmed from our past experiences.  In a decision making context, this could be the projection your brain makes based on similar past experiences.  This is also where cognitive biases live.

So what?  What was the point of all this?  At best this has been an interesting thought experiment, I don’t expect to implement a PID controller to help me make decisions in my life.  However, I do plan on at least cycling through these perspectives when making an important decision to help identify the source of my leanings and vet their relevance to the decision at hand. Try it out!


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