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Is our brain biased? Do Our Expectations Shape Our Reality?

brain, information flow, predictive processing, reshuffled sequences, natural sequences, visual cortex, parietal cortex, premotor regions, classical models, anticipated actions, sensory input, suppressive processing, cognitive mechanisms, neuroscience

Delving into the intricacies of our brain’s inner workings during social interactions, researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience have uncovered an enlightening revelation. It turns out that our perception of other people’s actions is more reliant on our expectations than previously believed.

Understanding the brain’s complexity

For years, scientists have sought to unravel the enigma of how our brains process the actions of others. One finding has been that observing someone perform a task activates similar areas in our brain as when we perform the task ourselves. The prevailing assumption was that this activation occurred in a sequential manner: visual brain regions first, followed by parietal and premotor regions that we typically engage when performing similar actions.

It was believed that this cascade of information flow, from our eyes to our own actions, facilitated our comprehension of others’ actions. This hypothesis was based on studies where individuals and monkeys observed isolated actions like picking up a knife in a laboratory setting. However, real-life scenarios rarely involve such isolated actions; rather, they unfold in predictable sequences with a specific goal in mind, like preparing breakfast. Our brain relies more on its own predictions of what should happen next when we observe others’ actions unfolding in meaningful sequences.

How the Brain Predicts and Processes Sequential Actions?

The researchers had a unique opportunity to directly measure the electrical activity of the brain using implanted electrodes in epilepsy patients. This technique is usually used for diagnosing the source of epilepsy, but during the waiting period for seizures, the researchers took the chance to study the brain’s functioning in unprecedented detail.

In the experiment, participants watched a video of various daily actions, like preparing breakfast or folding a shirt. Their brain activity was measured through the implanted electrodes in brain regions involved in action observation. Two conditions were tested: one with the actions shown in their natural sequence and another with the actions randomly shuffled. The brain activity differed depending on the condition. Only when the actions were shown in their natural order could the participants’ brains use their knowledge to predict what action comes next, like buttering a bread-roll.

Different Information Flow in the Brain

When observing reshuffled sequences of actions, the brain follows a predicted pattern of information flow from visual to parietal and premotor regions. However, when witnessing natural sequences, the brain exhibits a remarkable shift in information processing. The premotor regions, which hold knowledge of our own actions, communicate with the parietal cortex while suppressing activity in the visual cortex. This suggests that our brains have a predictive nature, anticipating what comes next and suppressing expected sensory input. Only when our expectations are violated do we become aware of what we actually see.

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