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Everyday clairvoyance: How your brain makes near-future predictions
Date:8/17/2011

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 chang
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Contact: Gerry Everding
gerry_everding@wustl.edu
314-935-6375
Washington University in St. Louis
Source:Eurekalert  

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