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Prediction Machines

In Saturday’s New York Times Opinion page, an article by Dr. Andy Clark, do-thrifty-brains-make-better-minds (read the entire article using this link), describes the thrifty nature of the human brain. Essentially, our brain matches current stimuli (things we see, hear, smell, or emotions, drug states, etc.) with previous experience and predict what will happen next. We behave according to those expectations.

Some important principles:
1. We only process small pieces of environmental stimuli and fill in the blanks with what we already know. Remarkably, we experience sights and sounds as complete pictures (even though we are actually only processing pieces).
2. We are more likely to process unexpected information. If there is an error in “filling in the blanks” we attend to it.
3. Almost the entire process occurs without awareness.
4. Your brain is always engaged in this process.

An example is, after driving a manual transmission for years, you step into an automatic (by the way, many of you have already filled in the blank of the rest of this sentence). Your brain recognizes car, and all of its componenents, so it predicts a pedal to the left of the brake (the clutch). You unconsciously try to step on it and find only air. When your brain registers the mistake (which it does before you are even aware of it), you become conscious of what you should do instead.

I cannot overstate how complex and remarkable this system is.

4 comments to Prediction Machines

  • candace1

    The predictive abilities our brains have are amazing. We have no need to focus on what we already know, only novel stimuli. This is great for efficiency, but the efficiency comes at the cost of accuracy. It only makes, however, that when presented with a convex shape of the face, we would perceive it as being convex. We, as humans, have the innate ability to recognize faces and experience tells us that faces are convex.

  • mparker3

    Because visual perception is retinotopic, I wonder if there are any ERP studies linking the “hollow face illusion” with topographic space within the brain.

  • jrehak

    Wow what an interesting article! I found the video particularily interesting in the fact that your brain doesn’t allow you to “see” the hollow face of the mask because it does not expect a hollow face since faces are not hollow!! I love that you used a person driving a manual and automatic vehicle as an example also. My boyfriend only drives manuals so when he drives my truck or my mother’s car I can see his brain telling him to switch gears and press on that clutch! Usually he’ll do it once and then his brain will correct him. However, I did not realize that he was driving like that because his brain(at first) expects that clutch and shift knob to be there and to have to engage it. It amazes me the more I learn about expectations, how relient our brains are on the fact that we can expect what is coming next(or at least try to expect).

  • saristy

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and it highlighted many things that I didn’t realize, but went back mentally and thought: ‘Hey, I know what they mean by that!’. I especially liked the optical illusion video that they put into the article, it really helped paint a clear picture of just what he was talking about in regards to perception and how our minds try and make scenes fit into our past experiences.

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