When we perceive sounds or identify images, brain activity is not used solely to process the physical properties and meanings that arise from them. On the contrary, only a small part of our brain activity (from about 1 to 5%) is “mobilized” in response to external events, in the remaining 95% the brain is continuously involved in formulating probability predictions about the events that may occur . in the environment.
These hypotheses are then systematically, and often unconsciously, compared with reality to arrive at a correct interpretation of what has been heard or seen. But from what age are we able to predict what will happen in the environment depending on what we perceive?
The team of researchers from the University of Padua in the study entitled Experience specific neural anticipatory activity in 4- and 9-month-old infants published in the journal Scientific Reports answered this question for the first time.
Suppose someone knocks on our door. Before we even know who’s coming in, we know it’s a person and not, say, a dog. Subsequently, when the subject has crossed the threshold, our brain will organize itself to focus on some crucial elements of social interaction, such as facial expressions, body posture and intonation of the voice to understand in a moment whether the interlocutor is a friendly person or not. The brain therefore works in a predictable way, but more importantly it is able to pre-activate itself by triggering specific neural networks based on the nature of the expected stimulus.
Hypothesizing what the future holds allows us to optimize our mental and physical resources to respond better and faster to events, increasing our chances of survival. It is, of course, not a matter of premonition, but of processes based on natural physical events, such as the sensory regularity of some environmental stimuli (a musical rhythm or a repetitive movement) or the associative learning between situations that tends to occur together (the “knock” on the door and the subsequent appearance of a face).
“This continuous cycle of prediction-verification-update is known in the literature as the predictive brain and defines the subtle balance that regulates the interface between our inner world and everything external to us. Despite the significant importance of our predictive brain – says Professor Giovanni Mento from the Department of Psychology at the University of Padua and first author of the study – no study has so far investigated its development in the very first months of life. In this research, brain activity was reconstructed in three classes of subjects – adults, 9-month-old children and 4-month-old babies – starting from their cortical electrical activity (EEG) during the presentation of faces or objects, respectively, preceded by a human voice or by non-human sounds.The results suggest that even in the group of 4-month-olds is a neural activation that reflects the ability to anticipate the event depending on the sound that is heard. In other words, the simple sound of a human voice is able to preactivate the neural circuits involved in the visual perception of faces about a second before they see them displayed on a screen ».
“It is the first scientific demonstration that very young children can prepare for the encounter with socially relevant stimuli as in the case of faces by activating the underlying neural mechanisms that will serve to process the faces even before their actual presentation – stresses Professor Teresa Farroni, Department of Developmental and Socialization Psychology at the University of Padua, who supervised the research project -. This early competence constitutes a fundamental prerequisite in human development to immediately guarantee the possibility of communicating with others similar ».
(The editors of “Le Scienze” are not responsible for the text of this press release, which has been published in its entirety and without changes)