Predictive Brain

Lesson objective:

In this lesson, we understand predictions and how they are simply thought-out guesses about what’s to come next. The brain uses all available information to predict the nature of the event and the evolution of potential inferences.

So, your brain uses learned associations and heuristics to help keep you safe and surviving. 

Earlier, we mentioned two basic tools your brain uses in service of survival. The first was associations, and the second is predictions. 

Predictions are simply the educated guesses about what comes next, based on existing and inferred information. 

Your brain is constantly scanning, like the control tower’s radar. It checks for threats around you. It checks out people who are approaching you, the scenes around you, the smells around you–to help prepare you for whatever comes next. It uses all available information to make a prediction about the nature of an event or experience, and then coordinates the most appropriate responses to what it has predicted. 

When there is not enough immediate information to be sure about the danger posed by an experience or sensation, it uses past experiences and heuristics to fill in the gaps and create a useful prediction that will enable it to adjust accordingly. 

 

Going back to the example of the control tower, the engineers in the tower have years of experience in airports, and therefore know what objects and situations pose a risk to the airport, versus what objects and situations are neutral. They have developed some pretty good heuristics and associations. For example: light rain coming in on the horizon does not threaten the airport’s safety. The planes and the buildings can handle light rain.

A hurricane or a thunderstorm, on the other hand, are risks to the airport. The airport and the planes cannot handle that type of weather.

In the case of dangerous weather–or even suspected dangerous weather–the engineers may temporarily suspend movements, or even close the airport until the threat has passed. All of these examples are examples of associations the tower has made. Certain things are associated with risks to their airport, and so, over time, the tower knows what to look out for on the horizon, or at least some recognizable signs.

The brain does the same thing. Associations and heuristics inform predictions, and the brain uses all of your senses–sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and even internal emotional feelings and unidentifiable physical sensations–to predict when possible danger is approaching.

Predictions can be very simple:

  • A dark sky might mean an incoming storm
  • The smell of smoke likely means a nearby fire
  • Knots in the stomach usually means something bad happened or will happen 

No two people will react the same way to predicted or imagined danger. But in any case, the brain will coordinate with the body to prepare the appropriate, adaptive response to deal with the predicted situation at hand. The idea of predictions is critical to understanding how the brain deals with stressful and traumatic events. 

We’ll get in to that later.