In March 2019, former Simons Institute Journalist in Residence Anil Ananthaswamy moderated a panel on The Predictive Brain, as part of the Simons Institute's Theoretically Speaking series at the David Brower Center. The panel featured Celeste Kidd (UC Berkeley), Bruno Olshausen (UC Berkeley), Christos Papadimitriou (Columbia University), and Michael Pollan (UC Berkeley).
How does the brain perceive? Does it use the information coming in through the various senses, such as our eyes and ears, and build up a perception of the world outside from the bottom up? Or is it doing something quite different? New thinking in neuroscience suggests that the brain builds models of what’s out there and uses these models to interpret the incoming sensory data — an idea that goes back to Plato, Kant and most recently to German physicist and physician Hermann von Helmholtz. Perception — of any sort, including perception of our body — is inherently an inference on the causes of the information impinging on our senses. According to this predictive processing hypothesis, the brain is always making informed predictions, and it’s these predictions that we perceive at all times.
Our panel of scientists and writers discussed the predictive brain from multiple perspectives. Celeste Kidd, professor of psychology, discussed the predictive brain in the context of a developing child’s brain. Computer scientist Christos Papadimitriou shared his thoughts on the intersection of these ideas with computer science. Neuroscientist Bruno Olshausen shed light on visual perception and the predictive brain. Michael Pollan, author of How To Change Your Mind, spoke about his experiences with psychedelics and how psychedelic hallucinations tie in with current ideas of perception as prediction. Anil Ananthaswamy, author of The Man Who Wasn’t There, moderated the discussion and shared ideas about how neuropsychological conditions such as schizophrenia are being understood from the point of view of the predictive brain.