What is computational neuroscience? (XXIX) The free energy principle

The free energy principle is the theory that the brain manipulates a probabilistic generative model of its sensory inputs, which it tries to optimize by either changing the model (learning) or changing the inputs (action) (Friston 2009; Friston 2010). The “free energy” is related to the error between predictions and actual inputs, or “surprise”, which the organism wants to minimize. It has a more precise mathematical formulation, but the conceptual issues I want to discuss here do not depend on it.

Thus, it can be seen as an extension of the Bayesian brain hypothesis that accounts for action in addition to perception. It shares the conceptual problems of the Bayesian brain hypothesis, namely that it focuses on statistical uncertainty, inferring variables of a model (called “causes”) when the challenge is to build and manipulate the structure of the model. It also shares issues with the predictive coding concept, namely that there is a conflation between a technical sense of “prediction” (expectation of the future signal) and a broader sense that is more ecologically relevant (if I do X, then Y will happen). In my view, these are the main issues with the free energy principle. Here I will focus on an additional issue that is specific of the free energy principle.

The specific interest of the free energy principle lies in its formulation of action. It resonates with a very important psychological theory called cognitive dissonance theory. That theory says that you try to avoid dissonance between facts and your system of beliefs, by either changing the beliefs in a small way or avoiding the facts. When there is a dissonant fact, you generally don’t throw your entire system of beliefs: rather, you alter the interpretation of the fact (think of political discourse or in fact, scientific discourse). Another strategy is to avoid the dissonant facts: for example, to read newspapers that tend to have the same opinions as yours. So there is some support in psychology for the idea that you act so as to minimize surprise.

Thus, the free energy principle acknowledges the circularity of action and perception. However, it is quite difficult to make it account for a large part of behavior. A large part of behavior is directed towards goals; for example, to get food and sex. The theory anticipates this criticism and proposes that goals are ingrained in priors. For example, you expect to have food. So, for your state to match your expectations, you need to seek food. This is the theory’s solution to the so-called “dark room problem” (Friston et al., 2012): if you want to minimize surprise, why not shut off stimulation altogether and go to the closest dark room? Solution: you are not expecting a dark room, so you are not going there in the first place.

Let us consider a concrete example to show that this solution does not work. There are two kinds of stimuli: food, and no food. I have two possible actions: to seek food, or to sit and do nothing. If I do nothing, then with 100% probability, I will see no food. If I seek food, then with, say, 20% probability, I will see food.

Let’s say this is the world in which I live. What does the free energy principle tell us? To minimize surprise, it seems clear that I should sit: I am certain to not see food. No surprise at all. The proposed solution is that you have a prior expectation to see food. So to minimize the surprise, you should put yourself into a situation where you might see food, ie to seek food. This seems to work. However, if there is any learning at all, then you will quickly observe that the probability of seeing food is actually 20%, and your expectations should be adjusted accordingly. Also, I will also observe that between two food expeditions, the probability to see food is 0%. Once this has been observed, surprise is minimal when I do not seek food. So, I die of hunger. It follows that the free energy principle does not survive Darwinian competition.

Thus, either there is no learning at all and the free energy principle is just a way of calling predefined actions “priors”; or there is learning, but then it doesn’t account for goal-directed behavior.

The idea to act so as to minimize surprise resonates with some aspects of psychology, like cognitive dissonance theory, but that does not constitute a complete theory of mind, except possibly of the depressed mind. See for example the experience of flow (as in surfing): you seek a situation that is controllable but sufficiently challenging that it engages your entire attention; in other words, you voluntarily expose yourself to a (moderate amount of) surprise; in any case certainly not a minimum amount of surprise.

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