May 27, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Your Prophetic Brain

Your eyes and brain come pre-wired to make predictions, and they are usually right. Even babies know that.

How good at you are making predictions? Ask four neuroscientists from Princeton, who figured, “Not bad.” Here’s what they say in PNAS:

Prediction is an essential part of life. However, are we really “good” at making predictions? More specifically, are pieces of our brain close to being optimal predictors? To assess the efficiency of prediction, we need to measure the information that neurons carry about the future of our sensory experiences. We show how to do this, at least in simplified contexts, and find that groups of neurons in the retina indeed are close to maximally efficient at separating predictive information from the nonpredictive background.

In fact, this capacity goes beyond just the eyes.  “Efficient coding of predictive information is a principle that can be applied at every stage of neural computation,” they say. Did you catch that word “coding”? and “information”? Notice, too, that a “principle” or a “computation” is not reducible to matter in motion.

Incidentally, there appears to be an important function for the rapid eye movements called “saccades” that our eyes constantly make, even when staring. Science Daily reports, “Patterns of brain activity reorganize visual perception during eye movements.” The oscillations reset the sensitivity of the neurons, and also support the brain’s representation of space. Bet you didn’t even notice those motions.

Baby Philosophy

Science Daily issued this surprise announcement: “Babies can think before they can speak.” Earlier studies showed preschoolers are adept at “relational thinking” and “analogical ability,” but now, tests on infants showed that they can recognize like things even before they can talk.

While there is considerable evidence that preschoolers can learn abstract relations, it remains an open question whether infants can as well. In a new Northwestern University study, researchers found that infants are capable of learning the abstract relations of same and different after only a few examples.

“This suggests that a skill key to human intelligence is present very early in human development, and that language skills are not necessary for learning abstract relations,” said lead author Alissa Ferry, who conducted the research at Northwestern.

How much better are they than supposed primate ancestors? It took only 6-9 trials for an infant to “get” the relationship between like objects. A baboon takes over 15,000 trials, the article claims. (By that time, it would seem indistinguishable from luck or conditioning.)

Decision Making

An article on Medical Xpress finds that the human brain equals or exceeds computers in two types of decision making. Given appropriate feedback, “human decision-making can perform just as well as current sophisticated computer models under non-Markovian conditions, such as the presence of a switch-state. This is a significant finding in our current efforts to model the human brain and develop artificial intelligence systems.”

That’s why PhysOrg reports that “Researchers [are] seeking to make computer brains smarter by making them more like our own.” No current computer beats the brain for efficiency and organization of its circuitry. Even if it takes a “trillion memristors vertically integrated on top of each other” to mimic this ability, “There are so many potential applications—it definitely gives us a whole new way of thinking,” one engineer said.

Update 5/27/15: An article on Medical Xpress claims, “Brain signals contain the code for your next move.” Studies with rats at the Kavli Institute show the mammals able to generate neural “codes” to choose the best direction in their mental maps.

Planning our movement to a desired location requires more than a map of where we are,” Professor May-Britt Moser says. “We must have a sense of both where we are at the moment, and where we want to go at the same time. It seems that the cells involved in navigation use both internal and external clues to pinpoint exact locations, and on top of the firing pattern there is a code of differential firing intensity that contains information on the next move.”

Moser explains that this intensity pattern appears to be under the guidance of the prefrontal cortex, a brain area known in primates for decision making and executive function.

“We believe these findings collectively suggest that the new pathway in charge of intended movement is crucial for animals to choose their actions to a desired place in a map,” Moser said. “The data also provide evidence for a role of the thalamus in long-range communication between cortical regions.”

Another article from Medical Xpress says that we may be hardwired to say “No.” According to research at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the deck is stacked against “Go” vs. “No-Go” in the striatum of the brain, where neurons and dopamine receptors outnumber the “Go” counterparts, resulting in a natural (but not complete) inhibition against action.

However, with this setting, D1 neurons can overcome the No Go pathway only when they receive weak inputs from the cerebral cortex that generates functions such as sensory perception, motor command, conscious thought and language. The switch between Go or No-Go decisions, depending on cortical input, gives rise to the decision transition threshold.

It takes a conscious thought, in other words, to overcome the bias. This may be a safety mechanism to prevent rash decisions. Salespeople should take note.

Isn’t your brain magnificent? Now use it. Jesus verbally chastised people (including his own disciples) who had eyes but did not see, and ears but did not hear. The same applies to brains: people who have brains but don’t think are not fulfilling the normal function their Creator intended.



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  • nad med says:

    Brain does not think or predict ….. The mind thinks and predicts.
    The above post adopts the materialistic stand …. Please be careful.

    • Editor says:

      Thanks for your concern, nad med, but I think it’s a misconception. The brain provides information to the mind, but the mind is in control. Think of Mr. Sulu giving the data to Captain Kirk, who makes the decision–sometimes against the crew’s common-sense feelings about what should be done.

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