The brain as a prediction machine: the key to consciousness?


The future, especially knowing the future, has been a side issue in psychology for over a century. The canonical human being, Psychological homo, is a prisoner of the past and the present … What happens when the canonical human becomes Homo flyer, and does our ability to think about our future become our ability to define? – Seligman, Railton, Baumeister and Sripada—Homo Flyer1

Psychology in general, and the scientific study of cognition in particular, tended until very recently to focus more on past-oriented cognition (memory) and present-oriented cognition (perception) and less. on cognition oriented towards the future / prospective (expectation, anticipation).

This has changed. Increasingly, there is interest in how the brain is oriented and perhaps even organized around the formation of predictions. And there is an interest in developing an evolutionary understanding of why anticipatory cognition is so crucial.

Source: vexworldwide | Adobestock

Understanding the brain as a prediction machine can help explain consciousness.

The brain has evolved as an adaptation allowing organisms to better perceive and control the environment and their own internal state. Consciousness further enhances this ability by modeling the environment and the self.2 The ability to make predictions, guided by forward-looking representations, of “if-then” possibilities, greatly enhances this modeling ability. A system that can model the environment and itself well can train simulations of the future environment and its adaptations to that environment.

In attempting to solve the seeming conundrum of how the brain produces consciousness, 3 it is important to first understand “What is a thought?” And how is information physical? Thoughts are physical representations or maps. The mind is a kind of map. The brain and its functional product, the mind, have evolved as a map of the body’s relationship with its external environment.

More evolved brains, such as humans, can integrate past sensory experiences to form representations of things that are not currently “out there”: predictive simulations.

Beliefs are a form of predictive modeling.4

When you’re a brain in a dark skull guessing what’s there presently outside there is a form of prediction.

Anil Seth, a neuroscientist at the forefront of the serious science of consciousness,5 explained and developed the concept of the brain as a prediction machine in his book Being you: a new science of consciousness.

Seth suggested that even our perceptions of what currently exists are, in a sense, only predictions or simulations (what he calls “controlled hallucinations”). These are formed by a continuous process of updating predictions or assumptions (“best guesses”) about what the sensory data perceives.6

As Seth explained in his popular TED talk:

Perception – that is, determining what is there – must be an educated guess process in which the brain combines these sensory signals with its previous expectations or beliefs about how the world should shape its best estimate of the cause of these signals. The brain cannot hear sound and cannot see light. What we perceive is his best estimate of what exists in the world.seven

According to this theory, what we perceive is strongly shaped by top-down expectations / predictions, and not just upward sensory inputs.

How do the thousands of representations / models of the brain produce a sense of oneness consciousness?

In his book, A thousand brains,8 entrepreneur, scientist, engineer and inventor Jeff Hawkins explained how brain knowledge is stored in the form of many models or maps of the world. Research by Hawkins’ group focused on how the brain has thousands of complementary models of every object it perceives.

He calls it the Thousand Brains of Intelligence Theory. Each model functions as a frame of reference, physically stored in a tiny cortical column.9 These additional repositories provide “what” and “where” information; all acting together, they provide information about how different aspects of the object relate to each other.ten

Prediction underlies much of the framework of this theory. A cortical column can build powerful predictive models. For example, moving your finger from the bottom of a cup to the top can predict the sensation regardless of how the cup is rotated relative to the finger sensor.11

So how come we don’t feel like we’re made up of a thousand brains, each with their own little independent model of the world? How is it that our consciousness feels unified? This is called the binding problem. Hawkins’ theory proposes that columns work together through their connections to each other, some of which are long-range connections crisscrossing the entire neocortex.

Through a process similar to ‘voting’, the different simultaneous models established by different columns coding perceptions from different frames of reference arrive at a best ‘consensus’ estimate (an algorithmic inference) as to what the object is. that is perceived, based on prior learning. information (eg “the only thing that is consistent with what we are all perceiving right now, based on input from all of the different senses and all of our different frames of reference, is a cup of coffee.” ).

According to theory, this system of storing information in frames of reference and building models / representations of the world does not only apply to physical objects. It evolves at higher levels of complexity and abstraction towards concepts such as mathematics, politics, and art.

Understanding the central role of expectations in cognition is essential for understanding many quirks of human functioning.

The fact that expectations fundamentally shape perceptions and beliefs explains many of the brain’s most effective characteristics, as well as its many problematic bugs.

Seeing is believing. But our perceptions are sometimes wrong. This can lead us to form mistaken (and often uncompromising) beliefs. Likewise, believing is seeing i.e. our perceptions are shaped by top-down expectations / assumptions about what we see, hear, etc. When our previous expectations are wrong, they powerfully influence us to perceive things wrongly.

This is the basis of optical illusions. Magicians skillfully exploit our perceptual expectations to entertain and amaze us, as do mediums – some of whom are charlatans, others themselves true believers – victims of self-deception as much as they are responsible for deceiving. others.

We humans are highly impressionable which, for many, combines with an incomplete understanding of science and other complex topics (and an overestimation of this understanding), leading to beliefs in paranormal phenomena, experiences mystics and other strange beliefs (including conspiracies), confused as to what is real and what is not.

Wrong expectations play a role in many mental disorders. Anxiety and depression, the most common mental disorders, are characterized by, and some would say in part caused by, erroneous expectations or predictions about the future – an overestimation of threat or failure.1213

Expectations (combined and shaped by setting / context) also play a major role in the very different ways that individuals experience psychedelics.14

In addition, unconscious expectations and biases in the processing of bodily sensations play an important role in functional neurological disorders (conversion disorders),15 and in other psychosomatic disorders. And expectations certainly play a central role in the ubiquitous phenomenon of the placebo response.16

Find a purpose in a world without God.

Seligman et al. noted17 that the idea that events in nature can be motivated by a purpose has generally been considered unscientific – teleology has effectively been banished by science. Teleology18 is the idea that design and purpose are inherent in nature. Teleological views of nature predominated in prescientific religious worldviews.

Even today, such notions persist in the minds of many, many religious / spiritual minded people who believe that a spiritual worldview is compatible with science. A common example is the hypothesis that one can accept biological evolution and yet believe that it is destined or guided to an ultimate end. This hypothesis reveals a profound misunderstanding of evolution.

The two major competing theories of the twentieth century in psychology – psychoanalytic and behavioral – have moved away from teleology, emphasizing the past causality of present behavior and ruling out the possibility that one aspect of the future can cause the present.

But, like Seligman et al. concluded:

A conceptual error seems to have driven the lack of interest in the future. Something genuinely suspect – a metaphysical teleology of causality back in time, of the present through the future – has been mistaken for something not at all mysterious, namely the idea that, in a world with spirits, behavior can be guided by maps of possible futures. as well as traces of real pasts. In this way, “possibilities for the near future” can explain concrete behaviors in the here and now.19

Even though the universe has no inherent purpose, living organisms, which evolved spontaneously and without a guide on at least this planet and most likely in many other places in the universe, are purpose driven. Even the simplest organizations are, by definition, goal-oriented. A goalless universe has become infused with purpose, and for humans, steeped in meaning.20


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