Everyday clairvoyance: How your brain makes near-future predictions

Every day we make thousands of tiny predictions — when the bus will arrive, who is knocking on the door, whether the dropped glass will break. Now, in one of the first studies of its kind, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are beginning to unravel the process by which the brain makes these everyday prognostications.

While this might sound like a boon to day traders, coaches and gypsy fortune tellers, people with early stages of neurological diseases such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases could someday benefit from this research. In these maladies, sufferers have difficulty segmenting events in their environment from the normal stream of consciousness that constantly surrounds them.

The researchers focused on the mid-brain dopamine system (MDS), an evolutionarily ancient system that provides signals to the rest of the brain when unexpected events occur. Using functional MRI (fMRI), they found that this system encodes prediction error when viewers are forced to choose what will happen next in a video of an everyday event.

Predicting the near future is vital in guiding behavior and is a key component of theories of perception, language processing and learning, says Jeffrey M. Zacks, PhD, WUSTL associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences and lead author of a paper on the study in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

"It's valuable to be able to run away when the lion lunges at you, but it's super-valuable to be able to hop out of the way before the lion jumps," Zacks says. "It's a big adaptive advantage to look just a little bit over the horizon."

Zacks and his colleagues are building a theory of how predictive perception works. At the core of the theory is the belief that a good part of predicting the future is the maintenance of a mental model of what is happening now. Now and then, this model needs updating, especially when the environment changes unpredictably.

"When we watch everyday activity unfold around us, we make predictions about what will happen a few seconds out," Zacks says. "Most of the time, our predictions are right.

"Successfull predictions are associated with the subjective experience of a smooth stream of consciousness. But a few times a minute, our predictions come out wrong and then we perceive a break in the stream of consciousness, accompanied by an uptick in activity of primitive parts of the brain involved with the MDS that regulate attention and adaptation to unpredicted changes."

Zacks tested healthy young volunteers who were shown movies of everyday events such as washing a car, building a LEGO model or washing clothes. The movie would be watched for a while, and then it was stopped.

Participants then were asked to predict what would happen five seconds later when the movie was re-started by selecting a picture that showed what would happen, and avoiding similar pictures that did not correspond to what would happen.

Half of the time, the movie was stopped just before an event boundary, when a new event was just about to start. The other half of the time, the movie was stopped in the middle of an event. The researchers found that participants were more than 90 percent correct in predicting activity within the event, but less than 80 percent correct in predicting across the event boundary. They were also less confident in their predictions.

"This is the point where they are trying hardest to predict the future," Zacks says. "It's harder across the event boundary, and they know that they are having trouble. When the film is stopped, the participants are heading into the time when prediction error is starting to surge. That is, they are noting that a possible error is starting to happen. And that shakes their confidence. They're thinking, 'Do I really know what's going to happen next?' "

Zacks and his group were keenly interested in what the participants' brains were doing as they tried to predict into a new event.

In the functional MRI experiment, Zacks and his colleagues saw significant activity in several midbrain regions, among them the substantia nigra — "ground zero for the dopamine signaling system" — and in a set of nuclei called the striatum.

The substantia nigra, Zacks says, is the part of the brain hit hardest by Parkinson's disease, and is important for controlling movement and making adaptive decisions.

activity in this experiment was revealed by fMRI at two critical points: when subjects tried to make their choice, and immediately after feedback on the correctness or incorrectness of their answers.

Mid-brain responses "really light up at hard times, like crossing the event boundary and when the subjects were told that they had made the wrong choice," Zacks says.

Zacks says the experiments provide a "crisp test" of his laboratory's prediction theory. They also offer hope of targeting these prediction-based updating mechanisms to better diagnose early stage neurological diseases and provide tools to help patients.

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Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2011
Simply amazing what our brains do behind our backs.
mrlewish
not rated yet Aug 17, 2011
Simply amazing what our brains do behind our backs.


I knew you would say that.
SR71BlackBird
not rated yet Aug 17, 2011
Simply amazing what our brains do behind our backs.


I knew you would say that.


I knew you would say that about him saying that.
gmurphy
not rated yet Aug 17, 2011
My error threshold surged and I wasn't sure about what anyone would say
iPan
not rated yet Aug 17, 2011
I knew exactly what all of you were going to say, before I opened the article!
hush1
not rated yet Aug 17, 2011
Predicting the near future is vital in guiding behavior and is a key component of theories of perception, language processing and learning", says Jeffrey M. Zacks, PhD, WUSTL associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences and lead author of a paper on the study in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Jeffrey spend no time at all in the womb. He will have to be retained for nine months. Sorry Jeffrey. No key to this 'vital' component did we have during gestation.
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Aug 17, 2011
I enjoyed the coincidence of this article and my reading preparatory to E. T.Jaynes' Probability Theory: The Logic of Science. He demonstrates a microscopic prescience; the reality is an urn containing a white and a black marble, this is preexisting knowledge. We observe withdrawing a marble. We predict that another such marble will not be drawn from that reality-urn.
Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2011
Still doesn't approach explaining things like telecognition.
hush1
not rated yet Aug 17, 2011
Probability. Interesting. Enjoying energy's and information's status. Neither created nor destroyed. Conserved.
All interesting sets of infinite elements.
Telekinetic
not rated yet Aug 18, 2011
Still doesn't approach explaining things like telecognition.


http://youtu.be/IzjprNL6sj8
cyberCMDR
not rated yet Aug 18, 2011
So is insanity when this tendency to predict runs rampant, and people live in these false predictions?
Ojorf
1 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2011
Telecognition is verrrry easily explained, it just does not happen! Same with 'clairvoyance' which in this article does not have the traditional meaning.
Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2011
Well, I say differently. I think telecognition and intuition are normal brain functions and we decide to consciously override them on a regular basis.

Try my little experiment: Isolate yourself from the world in seclusion for 1 year, maintain only 2-3 close contacts, friends or family, keep a small notepad, and pay attention to your mind. Clear your head of all extemporaneous and unnecessary thoughts, it takes practice, lots of it.

I have done this, and I see telecognition demonstrated to me on a daily basis, I am getting 85% correct. What the mind can do when it's not constantly filled with garbage and fluff is beyond what most get to experience.

@Tele...interesting video, that reminds me of a negative ion generator I had in the house growing up, had a little metal whirly on top and rotational velocity increased when people got near. You think it could be electrostatics ?
Telekinetic
not rated yet Aug 18, 2011
@Isaacsname:
It's telekinesis.
Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2011
Have you tried manifestation of objects ? My year in seclusion also involved this. Small objects like ball bearings and such. I don't mean manifestation out of nothing, I mean having it brought to you with no action on your part other than the repeated thoughts of the object. I had some very interesting results from that but have never really seen any literature or talk of it to corrolate my experiences to other peoples'.
Telekinetic
not rated yet Aug 18, 2011
@Isaacsname:
I've given you enough clues.
KBK
not rated yet Aug 21, 2011
Read the book : 'The Field'. by Lynn McTaggart.
She compiles the evidence of a good 500-1000 studies into psychic phenomena, into a giant meta overview, with full and proper bibliography and references for each stated point. We're talking a good 500 books and large studies. All provably real, done in proper scientific protocol.

Probably the biggest eye opening gateway study or compilation to ever be made. The book's evidence is hard to ignore.

Read it before making up your mind. thanks.