in science •  11 months ago


Why do we predict the future? Why do we anticipate? What is the evolutionary foundation for this mechanism?

According to Daniel Dennett, it is because it is beneficial to play out alternative scenarios in our head so those scenarios can die instead of us.


Suppose you want to yell at your neighbor's kid for playing in your yard, but then you imagine how she might react if your dog poops on her lawn after you've yelled at her kid. You've also heard her mention her brother is a lawyer.


Even flies, with their comparatively rudimentary nervous systems, anticipate before you smack them.


There's a tradeoff, however, as there always is. Accuracy takes the place of speed, economy takes the place of precision. Daniel Kahneman would label these Systems 1 and 2, with 1 being speedy and economical and 2 being accurate and precise, or truthful.


As Nassim Taleb says in the "Black Swan," this is why we are so susceptible to predictions and forecasts by "experts." We always want a "what if," and alternative scenario at our fingertips. This part of our consciousness can be invaluable (especially if we're prone to road rage!) but can also lead us astray. What if we predict wrong? What if the future is different from the past? What if the stock market changes unpredictably? Why is law set on precedent, when so often the future is unimaginably different from the past?


  1. Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett: Chapter 7, The Evolution of Consciousness
  2. The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb
  3. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Anticipation by Karl Witkowski - from Wikimedia Commons

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Reminds me of an article I read a couple months ago. I was especially struck by this part:

This part is almost funny. Remember, the brain really hates prediction error and does its best to minimize it. With failed predictions about eg vision, there’s not much you can do except change your models and try to predict better next time. But with predictions about proprioceptive sense data (ie your sense of where your joints are), there’s an easy way to resolve prediction error: just move your joints so they match the prediction. So (and I’m asserting this, but see Chapters 4 and 5 of the book to hear the scientific case for this position) if you want to lift your arm, your brain just predicts really really strongly that your arm has been lifted, and then lets the lower levels’ drive to minimize prediction error do the rest.

Under this model, the “prediction” of a movement isn’t just the idle thought that a movement might occur, it’s the actual motor program. This gets unpacked at all the various layers – joint sense, proprioception, the exact tension level of various muscles – and finally ends up in a particular fluid movement:


Ok, I’ve thought about this more and think I understand it. I wonder if in it’s quest to minimize prediction error, sometimes the brain just refuses to accept reality.

For example, I know my brain has subconsciously tried to trick me into thinking something didn’t happen, when I know sub-subconsciously it did.

I wonder how many levels of consciousness there are? I don’t actually know if I have a subconscious and a sub-subconscious, I just don’t know how else to explain my experience.


Whoa, wicked cool! I'm going to have to think about this for a bit.