Home Career Our brain is an always-on prediction machine – ScienceDaily

Our brain is an always-on prediction machine – ScienceDaily


Our brain works like the autocomplete feature on your phone – it’s constantly trying to guess the next word when we’re listening to a book, reading or having a conversation. Unlike computers that recognize speech, our brains are constantly making predictions at multiple levels, from meaning and grammar to specific speech sounds. This is what researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and the Donders Institute at Radboud University found in a new study. Their results are published in PNAS.

This fits with a recent theory about how our brain works: it’s a prediction machine that continuously compares the sensory information we pick up (such as pictures, sounds, and language) with internal predictions. “This theoretical idea is extremely popular in neuroscience, but the existing evidence for it is often circumstantial and limited to artificial situations,” says lead author Micha Heilbron. “I’d really like to understand how it works and test it in different situations.”

Brain research on this phenomenon is usually done under artificial conditions, Heilbron points out. To elicit predictions, participants are asked to stare at a single pattern of moving dots for half an hour or listen to simple patterns in sounds such as “beep-beep-boop, beep-beep-boop, …”. “Studies like this do show that our brain can make predictions, but not that it always happens in complex everyday life. We’re trying to derive this from a laboratory setting. We’re studying the same type of phenomenon, how the brain deals with unexpected information, but then in natural situations that are much less predictable.”

Hemingway and Holmes

Researchers analyzed the brain activity of people listening to stories by Hemingway or Sherlock Holmes. At the same time, they analyzed the texts of books with the help of computer models, so-called deep neural networks. In this way they were able to calculate how unpredictable each word was.

For each word or sound, the brain makes detailed statistical expectations and turns out to be very sensitive to the degree of unpredictability: the brain’s response is stronger when the word is unexpected in context. “That in itself is not very surprising: after all, everyone knows that you can sometimes predict future language. For example, your brain sometimes automatically “fills in the blank” and mentally finishes other people’s sentences, such as when they start speaking very slowly, stutter, or can’t think of a word. But what we’ve shown here is that it does happen continuously. Our brain is constantly guessing words; the prediction engine is always on.”

More than software

“In fact, our brains do something similar to speech recognition software. Speech recognition tools that use artificial intelligence are also constantly making predictions and allowing themselves to be guided by their expectations, just like the autocomplete feature on your phone. However, we noticed a big difference: the brain predicts not only words, but makes predictions at different levels, from abstract meaning and grammar to concrete sounds.’

There is good reason for continued interest from tech companies that would like to use new ideas like this to build better language and image recognition software, for example. But such applications are not the main purpose of Heilbron. “I would really like to understand how our prediction machine works at a fundamental level. Now I work with the same research setup, but for visual and auditory perception, like music.”

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Materials is provided Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.

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