A predictive processing theory of sensorimotor contingencies: Explaining the puzzle of perceptual presence and its absence in synesthesia

Cogn Neurosci. 2014;5(2):97-118. doi: 10.1080/17588928.2013.877880. Epub 2014 Jan 21.


Normal perception involves experiencing objects within perceptual scenes as real, as existing in the world. This property of "perceptual presence" has motivated "sensorimotor theories" which understand perception to involve the mastery of sensorimotor contingencies. However, the mechanistic basis of sensorimotor contingencies and their mastery has remained unclear. Sensorimotor theory also struggles to explain instances of perception, such as synesthesia, that appear to lack perceptual presence and for which relevant sensorimotor contingencies are difficult to identify. On alternative "predictive processing" theories, perceptual content emerges from probabilistic inference on the external causes of sensory signals, however, this view has addressed neither the problem of perceptual presence nor synesthesia. Here, I describe a theory of predictive perception of sensorimotor contingencies which (1) accounts for perceptual presence in normal perception, as well as its absence in synesthesia, and (2) operationalizes the notion of sensorimotor contingencies and their mastery. The core idea is that generative models underlying perception incorporate explicitly counterfactual elements related to how sensory inputs would change on the basis of a broad repertoire of possible actions, even if those actions are not performed. These "counterfactually-rich" generative models encode sensorimotor contingencies related to repertoires of sensorimotor dependencies, with counterfactual richness determining the degree of perceptual presence associated with a stimulus. While the generative models underlying normal perception are typically counterfactually rich (reflecting a large repertoire of possible sensorimotor dependencies), those underlying synesthetic concurrents are hypothesized to be counterfactually poor. In addition to accounting for the phenomenology of synesthesia, the theory naturally accommodates phenomenological differences between a range of experiential states including dreaming, hallucination, and the like. It may also lead to a new view of the (in)determinacy of normal perception.

Keywords: Active inference; Bayesian brain.; Counterfactuals; Predictive coding; Presence; Sensorimotor contingencies; Synesthesia; Veridicality.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem
  • Humans
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Perceptual Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Photic Stimulation*
  • Synesthesia

Supplementary concepts

  • Synesthesia