A free energy principle for the brain

J Physiol Paris. 2006 Jul-Sep;100(1-3):70-87. doi: 10.1016/j.jphysparis.2006.10.001. Epub 2006 Nov 13.


By formulating Helmholtz's ideas about perception, in terms of modern-day theories, one arrives at a model of perceptual inference and learning that can explain a remarkable range of neurobiological facts: using constructs from statistical physics, the problems of inferring the causes of sensory input and learning the causal structure of their generation can be resolved using exactly the same principles. Furthermore, inference and learning can proceed in a biologically plausible fashion. The ensuing 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 organisation and responses. In this paper, we show these perceptual processes are just one aspect of emergent behaviours of systems that conform to a free energy principle. The free energy considered here measures the difference between the probability distribution of environmental quantities that act on the system and an arbitrary distribution encoded by its configuration. The system can minimise free energy by changing its configuration to affect the way it samples the environment or change the distribution it encodes. These changes correspond to action and perception respectively and lead to an adaptive exchange with the environment that is characteristic of biological systems. This treatment assumes that the system's state and structure encode an implicit and probabilistic model of the environment. We will look at the models entailed by the brain and how minimisation of its free energy can explain its dynamics and structure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiology
  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Entropy*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Probability
  • Visual Perception / physiology