The Free Energy Mystery


The third prompt is all about scientific ideas we don’t understand. We all know that science is quite complicated and no one knows it all. Neuroscience, as a scientific field, is no exception to that rule. Unfortunately, it seems to me that we don’t talk enough about ideas and concepts we don’t quite get.

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense. There isn’t much one can actually say about things one doesn’t understand (although, if we look at all the self-proclaimed experts around us, that doesn’t exactly hold). But on the other hand, I think that pretending we follow things even when we don’t only contributes to perpetuating our own ignorance. And I think being honest and capable of saying “I don’t even know from where to start with this” is the first step towards grasping certain concepts. Plus, it might also make others, who also secretly didn’t get that thing, but didn’t speak up for fear of sounding stupid, join the conversation.

With that being said, here’s something I don’t understand in neuroscience: the free energy principle. If you’re a neuroscientist, you might be snickering right now. That’s either because you think this is such an obvious principle that you can’t even begin to fathom what kind of simpleton doesn’t comprehend its intricacies, or (the more likely situation, since I’m pretty sure Karl Friston doesn’t read my blog) because you don’t get it either. Whereas if you’re not a neuroscientist, you’re probably just confused by this paragraph. Rest assured though, it won’t get better from here.

As I said, it doesn’t look like anything to me, so I can only offer you limited information on the topic (for more details, check out the references at the end of this article). The free energy principle was proposed by Karl Friston, who is the most cited and one of the most famous neuroscientists. As far I as get it, this principle posits that the brain is making predictions about the future and trying to act in a way that minimizes the discrepancy between prediction and reality, thus minimizing its surprisal or “free energy”.

But behind this relatively simple sentence, there is a lot of cryptic math. Friston also seems to be postulating that the free energy principle is the framework which provides a unifying explanation of how the brain (and actually any self-organizing biological system) works. Whether that’s true or not, I cannot tell you, as that would require a proper understanding of the principle.

Now, there is a lot I could say about why I think a lot of people don’t properly understand this concept, but the internet is already quite full of such criticism and it also goes beyond the scope of this article. So instead I will end by saying that, if there’s some kind soul out there who thinks they properly grasp Friston’s idea, as well as its numerous implications, and would like to share it with the world, we’re looking forward to reading that explanation in the comments.

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Further reading

Friston, K. J., & Stephan, K. E. (2007). Free-energy and the brain. Synthese159(3), 417-458.

Friston, K., Thornton, C., & Clark, A. (2012). Free-energy minimization and the dark-room problem. Frontiers in psychology, 130.

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