Predicting the Future

How do we apply our knowledge? Schema are used to make predictions about what will happen in our world. Remember, we are constantly trying to make sense of the world and optimize performance within it. The ability to predict what will happen is critical – and a great evolutionary advantage: “… the human brain has gained the capacity to make future predictions far beyond that of any other animal species” (Fuster & Bressler, 2015).

For example, sensory information that we attend to enters our working memory which means it is interpreted by our prior knowledge. The sensory information contains “cues” or patterns that we have seen before. These cues activate the prior knowledge that is used to interpret our sensory experience. But our interpretation of reality is not objective. It is subjective. It occurs within the context of our goals – of what we are aiming to achieve.

Figure 17.1. Our goals set a context from which information is processed

Within this context, we make a prediction which helps determine whether or not we take an action (e.g. based on what we predict will happen) – and, if an action is needed, what specific action to take.

Figure 17.2. We constantly make predictions about what is going to happen

After our prediction – something happens. The experience is fed back into our memory system and the schemas (prior knowledge) activated for our prediction are updated. Reconsolidation refers to the updating of our prior knowledge. Information that is consistent with our prediction is strengthened. Information that is inconsistent is weakened within our schema. Remember that our system is biologically constrained, so throughout this prediction-action-updating process, most information is lost. How does our brain determine what to keep? As we can’t retain all the details of our experiences, our brain prioritizes “surprise” – especially errors. Errors in its predictions. This is referred to as reinforcement learning. Priority is given to information based on a combination of the size of the error and the value of meaningfulness of the prediction (e.g. in relation to basic human needs). Reinforcement learning is governed by our dopamine reward system and can be found in other species – even fruit flies and bees.

Figure 17.3. The results of our predictions update our schema


Predicting the Future
  • Fuster, J. M., & Bressler, S. L. (2015). Past makes future: role of pFC in prediction. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 27(4), 639-654.
  • Kim, G., Lewis-Peacock, J. A., Norman, K. A., & Turk-Browne, N. B. (2014). Pruning of memories by context-based prediction error. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(24), 8997-9002.
  • Schultz, W. (2017). Reward prediction error. Current biology: CB 27 (10), R369-R371
  • Tse, D., Langston, R.F., Kakeyama, M., Bethus, I., Spooner, P.A., Wood, E.R., Witter, M.P. and Morris, R.G., 2007. Schemas and memory consolidation. Science, 316(5821), pp.76-82.
  • Cepelewicz, j. (2018, July 10). To Make Sense of the Present, Brains May Predict the Future”. Retrieved from


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Science of Learning Concepts for Teachers (Project Illuminated) Copyright © 2020 by Marc Beardsley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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