The brain is a prediction machine:It knows how good we are doing something before we even try

16 March 2021

Highlights of the study:

  • A new study suggests that even before events happen people estimate, in advance, whether they are likely to happen. They estimate the chances of things happening around them (“external chance”) but they also estimate their own chances of success at a task even before they try it ('internal chance').
  • A brain area in the anterior lateral prefrontal cortex is crucial for estimating our future chances of success. This advance sense of how we will fare determines the tasks that we are most likely to attempt and those that we might forgo.
  • Understanding of the significant role of the anterior prefrontal cortex for the future planning will reveal how we learn the relationship between a new environment and ourselves.
  • Well-functioning anterior lateral prefrontal cortex will lead people to make an unbiased and accurate estimation of future chances of success.

New research published today by Oxford University researchers in the journal Neuron found that people have an advance sense of how well they will do at a task even before they try it. This advance sense guides us towards tasks and problems we are likely to solve, and away from those that might be too hard. A brain activity pattern in the anterior lateral prefrontal cortex tracks this estimate of how well we are likely to do.
“External chances” are the chances of things happening in the environment around us, but this new research shows that we – and our brains – also track “internal chances” – our own sense of how likely we are to do something. This sense leads us to try to solve some problems and neglect others.

For example, when we decide which restaurant to drive to without GPS, we might need to estimate our ability to reach the restaurant based on our memory (internal chance) and the likelihood the restaurant is open (external chance). To ensure a desired outcome (nice dinner), it is important to evaluate both types of chances and choose the better option (the restaurant we know we can find). The research discovered that people have a fine-tuned skill to estimate both types of chances and to compare them. They found that a specific brain area in the anterior lateral prefrontal cortex (alPFC; area 47) was critical for the comparison.

Briefly changing its activity with magnetic pulses led people to tackle a difficult decision they were likely to fail. Disrupting activity in anterior lateral prefrontal cortex decreased the accuracy of estimation of future chances of success. At the same time, people tended to be overconfident about their estimation and to take a riskier decision.

Kentaro Miyamoto, researcher in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Oxford and co-lead of the study said: ‘In the past, our group has found that a wide brain network spanning the prefrontal and parietal cortex encodes information that guides the decisions we take. alPFC is quite different; it tracks information about ourselves and our own ability to make decisions.

‘The information it encodes is used to guide future decisions, rather than the current decision and so it can help us identify the decisions we are likely to tackle well and those we will struggle with. alPFC is evolutionally novel and well-developed especially in humans. alPFC seems to play an important role in the ability, which is highly developed in humans, to think prospectively – to imagine the future – and to estimate our chances of making good decisions in the scenarios we will encounter.’

Participants of the experiment estimated their performance (internal chance) for judgements of direction of ambiguously moving dots and compared with probability cued by environments (external chance). alPFC is crucial for prospective comparison of these chances.

Notes for Editors:

For further information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
Ruth Abrahams, Media Relations Manager (Research and Innovation), University of Oxford, [email protected].

  •  To access the Neuron paper:
  • Miyamoto K, Trudel N, Kamermans K, Lim MC, Lazari A, Verhagen L, Wittmann MK, Rushworth MF. Identification and disruption of a neural mechanism for accumulating prospective metacognitive information prior to decision-making. 2021, Neuron 109. Publication date 16 March 2021.
  • The University of Oxford’s Experimental Psychology Department’s mission is to conduct world-leading experimental research to understand the psychological and neural mechanisms relevant to human behaviour. Wherever appropriate, we translate our findings into evidence-based public benefits in mental health and well-being, education, industry, and policy. Key areas of research include Behavioural Neuroscience, Developmental Psychology, Social Psychology, and Psychological and Brain Health.
  • The study was supported by the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and Japan Science and Technology Agency
  • Interviews with the authors can be conducted in English, Japanese, German, French, Dutch and Italian.