Waves of anticipation

The brain anticipates future events using immediate predictions in the back of the brain and progressively longer-term predictions in regions closer to the front.
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Image caption: Different brain regions anticipate the near future (top) and the far future (bottom). Image credit: Adapted from PK (CC BY 2.0)

Anticipating future events is essential. It allows individuals to plan and prepare what they will do seconds, minutes, or hours in the future. But how the brain can predict future events in both the short-term and long-term is not yet clear. Researchers know that the brain processes images or other sensory information in stages. For example, visual features are processed from lines to shapes to objects, and eventually scenes. This staged approach allows the brain to create representations of many parts of the world simultaneously.

A similar hierarchy may be at play in anticipation. Different parts of the brain may track what is happening now, and what could happen in the next few seconds and minutes. This would provide a way for the brain to forecast upcoming events in the immediate, near, and more distant future at the same time.

Now, Lee et al. show that the regions in the back of the brain anticipate the immediate future, while longer-term predictions are made in brain regions near the front. In the experiments, study participants watched a 90-second clip of the movie ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ six times while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Then, Lee et al. used computer modeling to compare the brain activity captured by fMRI during successive viewings. This allowed the researchers to watch participants’ brain activity moment-by-moment.

As the participants repeatedly watched the movie clip, their brains began to anticipate what was coming next. Regions near the back of the brain like the visual cortex anticipated events in the next 1 to 4 seconds. Areas in the middle of the brain anticipated 5 to 8 seconds in the future. The front of brain anticipated 8 to 15 seconds into the future. Lee et al. show that many parts of the brain work together to predict the near and more distant future. More research is needed to understand how this information translates into actions. Learning more may help scientists understand how diseases or injuries affect people’s ability to plan and respond to future events.