In a nutshell: Populations of brain cells involved in managing surprise become more active with attention to visual stimuli.

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The human brain processes a massive amount of sensory information each day, enabling us to interpret everything we see, smell, hear, taste and touch – and respond appropriately. To manage this workload in the most efficient way, the brain builds a predictive model of the outside world and updates it when surprising events occur. At the same time, attention helps the brain to process the most important sensory events first.

Although we use attention and prediction all the time, researchers didn’t know exactly how they work together in the brain. To find out, Brain Function CoE investigators Cooper Smout, Matthew Tang, Marta Garrido and Jason Mattingley investigated what type of information is processed in the human brain when we pay attention to expected or surprising visual events in the environment.

The researchers asked participants to view a monitor showing patterns in orientations that were either predictable, surprising or unpredictable. In some cases, the participants were asked to look out for particular changes in the appearance of the patterns, and to press a button as soon as they detected a change. In other cases, they were asked to focus instead on a dot on the monitor, thus ignoring the patterns in the background. While participants completed the tasks, their brain activity was recorded using electroencephalography.

The researchers found that paying attention to patterns increased the activity of populations of brain cells that manage surprise. The brain pathway for managing surprise assesses the difference between observed and predicted events, helping the brain to refine its predictions so it can respond more efficiently when it next encounters the same event.

The fact that these populations of brain cells are most active in response to surprising, ‘attended’ events suggests that attention and prediction both operate within the same fundamental pathway in the brain.

Next steps:
The researchers are following this line of research to see how and whether the same mechanisms are involved in other types of attention, such as paying attention to a particular colour in a visual scene.

Smout, C.A., Tang, M.F., Garrido, M.I., & Mattingley, J.B. (2019). Attention promotes the neural encoding of prediction errors. PLoS Biology 17(2): e2006812

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