Predictive Minds

Andy Clark, Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

This is another post looking back to the mind-reading event in Durham (the first follow-up being the previous post). One of the themes there was the predictive element in the way we draw inferences about others. Like many other activities of our brains, the argument goes, we are constantly predicting, receiving data from the world, and then modifying our predictions. Feedback between mind and world is part of any sensible model, but the stress put on prediction is a noteworthy and significant strand in contemporary cognitive science.
      I’ve mentioned that this can (partly) be traced back to Thomas Bayes in the 18th century, once or twice before. But Clark’s newish book, with a lot of verve, goes beyond the equations into a big picture. If you prefer to consume your psychology in article form, he sketches out the framework in essays such as these…

* ‘Whatever Next? Predictive Brains, Situated Agents, and the Future of Cognitive Science’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36 (2013), 181-204. In the journal you’ll find lots of commentary and a response.
* ‘Expecting the World: Perception, Prediction, and the Origins of Human Knowledge’, Journal of Philosophy, 110 (2013), 469-96.


Clark says he has ‘two stories on offer… One is an extremely broad vision of the brain as an engine of multilevel probabilistic prediction. The other is a more specific proposal (“hierarchical predictive coding” or Predictive Processing) concerning just how such a story might be told’ (p. 10). I won’t dwell on the detail here, but the key thing seems to be a continuous, energetic, dynamic flow between prediction and sensory data. So, in relation to ‘theory of mind’, for example, we’re always modifying and generating models of what should happen next. This has evolved as an efficient way of dealing with our overall predicament, but it manifests itself in biases and errors, such as when the predictions are based on false but habitual premises.
      Clark being the Extended Mind maestro that he is, the book focuses a lot on what he sees as his ‘crucial task… to locate the neural engines of prediction where they truly belong: nested within the larger organizational forms of the active body, and enmeshed in the transformative structures of our material, social, and technological worlds’ (p. 108). This seems to be the most characteristic and arresting emphasis of Clark’s work in the Predictive Processing field, putting the equations of probabilistic calculation into the meat and veg of the worldly stew.


Some approaches to literature have already engaged with prediction: Reuven Tsur, in his work on cognitive poetics, for example, has seen metre as something that excites predictions (about rhythm and rhyme, for example). These may be rewarded or confounded, and the interaction between these two things offers a pleasurable experience. Clark’s book makes me think of this as something richly embodied and in-the-world: in different ways poetic forms may engage our embodied, situated minds, standing and singing, walking rhythms and heart-beats, clocks of all kinds ticking, drawing on our constant predicting and re-predicting skills.
      Prediction’s big, and the trick for any literary-critical application will be finding a particular focus to bring things to a point. In relation to genre, for example, it would be easy to say that we’re always drawing on things we know to predict what will happen next in a story, and how, but it would be less easy to identify a moment at which this is tangible and particular. Less easy, but surely possible. In a future post I will say something about a recent book that does just this.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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