Active inference, sensory attenuation and illusions

Cogn Process. 2013 Nov;14(4):411-27. doi: 10.1007/s10339-013-0571-3. Epub 2013 Jun 7.


Active inference provides a simple and neurobiologically plausible account of how action and perception are coupled in producing (Bayes) optimal behaviour. This can be seen most easily as minimising prediction error: we can either change our predictions to explain sensory input through perception. Alternatively, we can actively change sensory input to fulfil our predictions. In active inference, this action is mediated by classical reflex arcs that minimise proprioceptive prediction error created by descending proprioceptive predictions. However, this creates a conflict between action and perception; in that, self-generated movements require predictions to override the sensory evidence that one is not actually moving. However, ignoring sensory evidence means that externally generated sensations will not be perceived. Conversely, attending to (proprioceptive and somatosensory) sensations enables the detection of externally generated events but precludes generation of actions. This conflict can be resolved by attenuating the precision of sensory evidence during movement or, equivalently, attending away from the consequences of self-made acts. We propose that this Bayes optimal withdrawal of precise sensory evidence during movement is the cause of psychophysical sensory attenuation. Furthermore, it explains the force-matching illusion and reproduces empirical results almost exactly. Finally, if attenuation is removed, the force-matching illusion disappears and false (delusional) inferences about agency emerge. This is important, given the negative correlation between sensory attenuation and delusional beliefs in normal subjects--and the reduction in the magnitude of the illusion in schizophrenia. Active inference therefore links the neuromodulatory optimisation of precision to sensory attenuation and illusory phenomena during the attribution of agency in normal subjects. It also provides a functional account of deficits in syndromes characterised by false inference and impaired movement--like schizophrenia and Parkinsonism--syndromes that implicate abnormal modulatory neurotransmission.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Attention / physiology
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Behavior / physiology
  • Humans
  • Illusions / psychology*
  • Psychophysics
  • Sensation / physiology*