Does Your Brain Like SURPRISES?

In my most recent article, I asked the question “Is Your Brain an Anarchist?” 

I also promised a little more detail related to this curious concept…well, here is the next course in the multi-course dinner. 

Remember, the chefs for the day are the extraordinary Karl Friston (Free Energy Principle) and Robin Carhart-Harris (Entropic Brain)…and their extravaganza meal…REBUS & the Anarchic Brain! 

A little reminder – these brilliant individuals are at the leading edge of brain research and command a heap of respect. 

Not everyone agrees with them 100% but their views are changing the landscape of brain/mind science with big implications in medicine and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

As before, I will do my best to serve up this next dish in “bite size” bullet point statements. 

Please chew well before swallowing to savor the complex flavors.

  1. As applied to our brain, the Friston Free Energy Principle owes a debt to (a bit of nerd-tech here) what is called the “Bayesian concept” that considers our brain to act like a gambler placing bets based on “probability patterns” of behavior.
  2. In this view, our incredibly complex brain does its best to “make sense out of the nonsense” avalanche of sensory input by making “educated guesses” and “jumping to conclusions” all the time.
  3. To translate this “Bayesian” concept into the more advanced Friston Free Energy Principle, our New Brain is very good at collecting impressions and storing them into well organized categories (something like sorting your laundry into piles that have certain qualities in common or separating your receipts into specific envelopes for tax filing preparations).
  4. The Free Energy Principle technical term for the laundry/receipts organization is “precision weighting on high level priors”.
  5. So here is a BIGGIE concept from Friston – our brain does its best to “minimize Surpises”…hence the title and theme of this short article – apparently (or at least according to Friston) our brain doesn’t want or like Surprises – we need to have a much better look at what he means (Spoiler Alert – I suspect that in certain circumstances, Surprises are just what our brain needs and even wants).
  6. Friston explains that our brain does its best to “understand” the relentless flow of sensory experience (both exteroception of outside information and interoception of inside information) by comparing new stuff to old stuff – he calls this comparison behavior “Active Inference”.
  7. A little semantics here for review – to “imply” is the act when the giver of the information inserts another layer of information or meaning into a message – to “infer” is the act when the receiver of the information inserts another layer of information or meaning into the message.
  8. So “Active Inference” could mean that the brain (as the receiver of the information) inserts a certain “meaning” into the message and takes certain “action” based on that inference.  (A little Fristonian humor – he jokes that “Active Inference” (AI) is the key to unlocking Artificial Intelligence (AI).
  9.  You can see the Bayesian influence here – our brain is taking short cuts to conserve energy by using inference to make predictions as to the likely “meaning” of certain patterns of sensory information.
  10. So, this is where the Surprise thing becomes important – our brain is a risk-taking gambler and really tries its best to be correct in its prediction – and instant feedback is the proving as to if your horse indeed won the race…or not.
  11. And sometimes…SURPRISE…you were wrong!
  12. Friston says our brain tries its best to NOT be wrong – it always tries to “minimize Surprise”.
  13. So, what happens when our brain gets a SURPRISE?
  14. The Free Energy Principle explains that there are basically two choices:
  15. a.      You accept that you were wrong and “change your thinking”;

    b.      You stick with your prediction and act out to make the experience fit into your predictive expectation.

  16. Next, I am going to ask you to think back (or read again) to my most recent article “Is Your Brain an Anarchist?”
  17. Recall that most of the ongoing controls in our brain emit from the New Brain/Secondary Consciousness domain – this is the Top-Down dynamic of our common waking experience.
  18. The “Don’t-give-me-any- Surprises” Friston “Active Inference” thing is a characteristic of the Top Down, New Brain/Secondary Consciousness brain domain.
  19. From the Entropic Brain Model, this New Brain/Secondary Consciousness domain is all about Order and Certainty and Repeated Reliability – which is incredibly important for biological survival.
  20. BUT… (back to the Anarchic Brain – the conceptual child of Friston AND Carhart-Harris)…there are times when we need to go exploring for the sake of New Learning – times when the Old Order does not fit the new challenges – times when we need to refine or even abandon the Old Order – times when the “precision weighting on high level priors” is coming up wrong again and again in its predictions – SURPRISE!
  21. Our brain revolts into “anarchy” and the flow shifts into Bottom Up – we journey into the Old Brain/Primary Consciousness – which, by its very nature, is filled with Uncertainty and Curiosity and Novel Experiences…filled with SURPRISES!
  22. I am reminded of a favorite children’s book of my young daughter (many, many years ago)…”Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak.

In conclusion, to answer the question posed in the title of this article – “Does Your Brain Like SURPRISES?” – the practical sober answer is constant surprises are not practical – not even healthy. 

We need Order and Certainty and Reliability for sane, safe survival. 

Yet we must also remain open and even appreciative of the surprises that come along in the process of exploration, discovery, adaptation and learning.  Sometimes the square peg just doesn’t fit in the round hole.