What is The Predictive Brain?

Human predictions from a neuroscience perspective

You may be unaware of it, but your brain makes thousands of predictions every day[1]. In fact, all humans possess an innate ability to predict the future; a mechanism we have developed through our evolution, which has been essential to the survival of our species [2].  For this reason, scientists have referred to the brain as the prediction machine [3].

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors had to make quick decisions in order to seize a prey or escape a predator [4]. In these situations, humans had less than a millisecond to make such decisions, and if the brain merely waited to be activated by stimuli [5], it could be too late. As noted by Professor of Brain Sciences, Professor Zacks at Washington University, when speaking about the brain’s predictive capability: “It’s a big adaptive advantage to look just a little bit over the horizon” [1]. While we are no longer living in such a threatening environment, our brain continues to use these mechanisms [3].


This predictive mechanism takes place at the neuronal level in the brain, meaning it is a process we are not consciously aware of. This makes it different to what we usually think of as judgmental forecasting, which involves an expressed expectation of a future event or situation. For instance, we could ask you to predict how many minutes you will have to queue at your next grocery shop visit. In this case, you may take several things into account; when your next shopping trip will be, how long you usually queue, whether that particular shop tends to be busy, etc. Here, you are making a judgment at a cognitive level; and this type of prediction is one scientists can measure without using neuroscientific equipment such as fMRI scanners or EEG tests, unlike our unconscious predictions surrounding environmental stimuli, which warrant these scientific methods.

Consider observing movement, for instance. If we zoom all the way into the neuronal level of the brain, a category of neurons, known as mirror neurons, exist. Found in both humans and other primates such as macaque monkeys, these neurons are remarkable as they fire both when we perform an action as well as when we view others performing this same action [7]. If humans were merely reactive creatures, one could assume these would fire as we observe an action, but in fact, they fire before [6], making us just that: Prediction Machines.


Sports would virtually be impossible if our brain did not have predictive capabilities. In a game of tennis, a player must be able to predict an opponent’s intentions rapidly and accurately, and the receiver must quickly make a decision regarding the direction in which the opponent will strike based on a variety of cues. In such a scenario, the brain receives visual input, such as the posture of the opponent and the position of the racket [7]. With perfect vision, the brain is generally able to make such predictions. However, our neural systems are also affected by various types of noise [8], which can lead to prediction errors. Imagine covering the tennis player’s eye with an eye patch: All of a sudden, their visual input is distorted.

Luckily, if the brain’s predictions are wrong, there are processes in place to correct and replace these. Indeed, the brain rarely makes the same prediction errors, as errors are essentially used as learning forces at the neural level [9]. All in all, the brain is an extraordinary instrument for predictions, and scientists have yet to uncover the full story.

Now that you know what one brain can do, imagine what 1000 brains collectively can predict!

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[1] Fitzpatrick, T. (2018). Everyday Clairvoyance: How Your Brain Makes Near-Future Predictions | The Source | Washington University in St. LouisThe Source.

[2] Schultz, W., Dayan, P., & Montague, P. (1997). A Neural Substrate of Prediction and Reward. Science275(5306), 1593-1599.

[3] Clark, A. (2013). Whatever Next? Predictive Brains, Situated Agents, and the Future of Cognitive Science. Behavioral And Brain Sciences36(03), 181-204.

[4] Maldonato, M., & Dell’Orco, S. (2012). The Predictive Brain. World Futures68(6), 381-389.

[5] Kveraga, K., Ghuman, A., & Bar, M. (2007). Top-down Predictions in the Cognitive Brain. Brain and Cognition65(2), 145-168.

[6] Bar, M. (2007). The Proactive Brain: Using Analogies and Associations to Generate Predictions. Trends In Cognitive Sciences11(7), 280-289.

[7] Lacoboni, M., Molnar-Szakacs, I., Gallese, V., Buccino, G., Mazziotta, J., & Rizzolatti, G. (2005). Grasping the Intentions of Others with One’s Own Mirror Neuron System. Plos Biology3(3), 79.

[8] Cacioppo, S., Fontang, F., Patel, N., Decety, J., Monteleone, G., & Cacioppo, J. (2014). Intention understanding over T:  A Neuroimaging Study on Shared Representations and Tennis Return Predictions. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience8.

[9] Bubic, A., von Cramon, D., & Schubotz, R. (2010). Prediction, Cognition and the Brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.



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