This article concerns the nature of evoked brain responses and the principles underlying their generation. We start with the premise that the sensory brain has evolved to represent or infer the causes of changes in its sensory inputs. The problem of inference is well formulated in statistical terms. The statistical fundaments of inference may therefore afford important constraints on neuronal implementation. By formulating the original ideas of Helmholtz on perception, in terms of modern-day statistical theories, one arrives at a model of perceptual inference and learning that can explain a remarkable range of neurobiological facts.
It turns out that the problems of inferring the causes of sensory input (perceptual inference) and learning the relationship between input and cause (perceptual learning) can be resolved using exactly the same principle. Specifically, both inference and learning rest on minimizing the brain's free energy, as defined in statistical physics. Furthermore, inference and learning can proceed in a biologically plausible fashion. Cortical responses can be seen as the brain’s attempt to minimize the free energy induced by a stimulus and thereby encode the most likely cause of that stimulus. Similarly, learning emerges from changes in synaptic efficacy that minimize the free energy, averaged over all stimuli encountered. The underlying scheme rests on empirical Bayes and hierarchical models of how sensory input is caused. The use of hierarchical models enables the brain to construct prior expectations in a dynamic and context-sensitive fashion. This scheme provides a principled way to understand many aspects of cortical organization and responses. The aim of this article is to encompass many apparently unrelated anatomical, physiological and psychophysical attributes of the brain within a single theoretical perspective.
In terms of cortical architectures, the theoretical treatment predicts that sensory cortex should be arranged hierarchically, that connections should be reciprocal and that forward and backward connections should show a functional asymmetry (forward connections are driving, whereas backward connections are both driving and modulatory). In terms of synaptic physiology, it predicts associative plasticity and, for dynamic models, spike-timing-dependent plasticity. In terms of electrophysiology, it accounts for classical and extra classical receptive field effects and long-latency or endogenous components of evoked cortical responses. It predicts the attenuation of responses encoding prediction error with perceptual learning and explains many phenomena such as repetition suppression, mismatch negativity (MMN) and the P300 in electroencephalography. In psychophysical terms, it accounts for the behavioural correlates of these physiological phenomena, for example, priming and global precedence. The final focus of this article is on perceptual learning as measured with the MMN and the implications for empirical studies of coupling among cortical areas using evoked sensory responses.
Keywords: cortical, inference, predictive coding, generative models, Bayesian, hierarchical