Your current experience is what your brain predicted 80 milliseconds ago

Image by Javier Rodriguez from Pixabay

Most people still see the brain as a stimulus-response machine: stimuli in the outside world enter via the senses our brain where they are being processed, so we can react to them. However, this is not how it works. It takes around 200 milliseconds for signals hitting your retina to reach your conscious brain. That is way too slow to survive in a world where most events take less than 200 to happen. For instance, facial muscles never stay in a pause mode for 200 milliseconds. They change more rapidly.

There’s only one way to survive such a fast changing world and that is: predicting it. Our brain does not perceive the world in a passive stimulus-response way, it predicts the world. That is way you see the red dot in the animation(*) below ahead of the green dot, although both are at the same position when the green dot appears.

The reason? Because the red dot moves along a continuous trajectory, your brain can predict its location. Contrary to that, the green dot appears unexpectedly. Your brain cannot predict it, so it takes around 200 milliseconds for your brain to see the green dot, creating the illusion that it appears on that location later than the red dot. So, what we experience is not the ‘now’, but always something that happened some 80 to 200 milliseconds ago. Or, what we predicted some milliseconds ago.

This new perspective, known as the predictive mind framework, is not yet well known in the autism field.

But it can and will be a game changer. It has significant implications for many strategies and interventions currently used in the autism field.

For instance, if our brain predicts stimuli rather than receiving them, this sheds a whole new light on the sensory issues in autism. And indeed, recent research shows that sensory issues in autism are actually prediction issues and that we should rather address the prediction errors than the stimuli (sound, light, ..) themselves.
Understanding language and, by extension, any other human behavior also seems to be an act of prediction. If we want people on the autism spectrum to get less lost in the social jungle, it will be a priority to make that jungle predictable.

Curious to know how all this could work and to see some concrete examples? You are welcome to my webinar ‘Autism and the predictive mind’.

(*) Animation by Laurent Perrinet, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


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