Life can be frustratingly uncertain. What part does prediction error play?

Cindy JobsADHD In The Workplace, Health and Well-Being, Productivity

In the intricate tapestry of life, our brains are wired to anticipate the future. From the mundane daily choices to the major life decisions we embark upon, our ability to predict outcomes is a fundamental aspect of human cognition. However, nestled within this process lies the concept of prediction error – a phenomenon that can shape our perceptions and reactions to the world around us. 

First, a personal story. I’ve walked the same river trail several days a week for years. My dog and I go early in the morning and have never encountered another human being or threat until the other day when we met a bear. My regular “prediction” is that walking the river is a stress-free experience. I can get lost in my thoughts and be internally present. Then one day, I met a bear on the trail. They were at most 20 yards away. The bear wanted nothing to do with me but was still a heart-stopper. My “prediction error” was that I didn’t need to be as vigilant as I needed to be.

What is Prediction Error?

At its core, prediction error refers to the discrepancy between what we expect to happen and what actually transpires. Our brains constantly make predictions based on past experiences, patterns, and available information. When reality aligns with our predictions, we experience a sense of validation and comfort. However, a prediction error occurs when reality diverges from our expectations, often leading to surprise, confusion, or even reevaluating our beliefs.

Everyday Examples:

  1. The Morning Commute: Imagine planning your daily commute, considering traffic patterns and the usual travel time. Most days, your predictions might be accurate, and you arrive at your destination as expected. But one morning, you encounter an unexpected road closure, causing a significant delay. This unpredicted event leads to a prediction error, challenging your assumptions about your commute.
  2. Weather Forecast: You check the weather forecast and see a prediction of sunny skies for the day. Based on this information, you decide to leave your umbrella at home. However, as you step outside, you’re met with an unexpected downpour. The inaccurate forecast creates a prediction error, altering your plans and emphasizing the inherent uncertainty in predicting weather patterns.

Life-Altering Scenarios:

  1. Educational Pursuits: Consider a student who has always been a top performer academically. They apply to a prestigious university expecting to be accepted due to their consistent track record. However, they receive a rejection letter, shattering their prediction and leaving them to reassess their self-perception and future goals.
  2. Relationship Dynamics: A person in a long-term relationship might assume they understand their partner’s feelings and reactions. Yet, one day, their partner expresses unforeseen emotions and desires. This prediction error challenges the person’s understanding of their partner, underscoring the complexity of human interactions.

Coping with Prediction Errors:

  1. Adaptation: While prediction errors can be unsettling, they also present growth opportunities. Adapting to unanticipated outcomes fosters resilience and flexibility. In the case of the rejected university application, the student might explore alternative educational paths that align with their passions and strengths.
  2. Learning and Adjustment: Prediction errors can serve as valuable teaching moments. When a relationship encounters unexpected challenges, addressing the prediction error can lead to deeper conversations, enhanced empathy, and stronger bonds.

The Role of Neuroscience:

Neuroscientific research suggests that our brains actively learn from prediction errors. When an outcome diverges from expectations, the brain’s reward and learning centers are activated. This neuronal response prompts us to update our mental models and refine our predictions for future scenarios.

Embracing Uncertainty:

While prediction errors can initially be disconcerting, they underscore the inherent uncertainty of life. Embracing uncertainty can lead to a richer, more open-minded perspective. It encourages us to approach experiences with curiosity and a willingness to learn rather than relying solely on fixed assumptions.

Prediction errors are integral to our cognitive processes, shaping our experiences and perceptions of the world. Whether encountered in the routines of daily life or the pivotal moments that define our paths, prediction errors remind us of the dynamic and unpredictable nature of existence. By embracing these errors as opportunities for growth, adaptation, and learning, we can navigate life’s twists and turns with greater resilience and insight.


Cindy Jobs, PCAC, PCC

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