An active inference perspective for the amygdala complex

Maybe the amygdala is not angry or sad or afraid – it’s just misunderstood!

More than 10 years I’ve been wondering how to link my amygdala research with predictive processing. With the invaluable help from my interdisciplinary colleagues and friends it worked out: a bit inspiration, hard work, and letting go of unnecessary clutter.

We want to inspire amygdala research by suggesting a unified narrative grounded in biological fundamentals (self-regulation) and a computational framework (Bayes). By proposing an active inference perspective, we reframe previously fragmented amygdala research topics:

1. Fear/anxeity: we see the amygdala as a mediator between interoception and exteroception. The central amygdala acts as a Bayesian regulator to inform affective states. It sends predictions to the basolateral amygdala, which allows efficient perception.

2. Danger detection: how do we distinguish a snake from a rope? The context matters: if you are afraid of encountering snakes (e.g., because you’re in the jungle) you are more likely to (mis)identify a snaky object as a snake. Not so much on a relaxing sailing cruise.

3. Fear conditioning: results from predictive processing and anticipating the future. Using exteroception the amygdala helps to predict deviations from optimal regulation (e.g., pain) before they happen. I call this a pro gamer move if you want to survive.

4. Actions: some sensations feel better than others. Approach and avoidance actions can make more preferred expected sensations become reality. It’s like magic. If it hurts in a bad way and you avoid it before it hurts, it does not hurt.

Can we self-regulate amygdala activity?

Yes! In the fMRI neurofeedback study I did in Zürich, we were able to show that people can voluntarily up- or down-regulate their amygdala. Our special twist was that we used emotional faces as feedback instead of barcharts to display the amygdala activation intensity.

In this study we asked our participants to make fearful faces less fearful or neutral faces more happy, which we presented to them while lying in our MRI scanner. We used the intensity of their amygdala activation to scale the intensity of the emotions displayed. This feasibility study worked in our healthy study population. Apurva Watve, the first author of this study, is now testing this method in people with major depression to see if it can improve their symptoms. Emotional faces could be more intuitive and naturalistic than abstract charts. We are social beings, after all.

Facing emotions: real-time fMRI-based neurofeedback using dynamic emotional faces to modulate amygdala activity

Vienna Cognitive Science Hub: Predictive Processing Symposium

The Vienna Cognitive Science Hub invited me to do an intro lecture on Predictive Processing, moderate the Q&A session with Karl Friston and to host their panel discussion with Karl Friston (University College London),
Naoshige Uchida (Harvard University), Isabella Sarto-Jackson (Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research), Moritz Grosse-Wentrup (University of Vienna), and Manuel Zimmer (University of Vienna).

Predictive Processing and the Free Energy Principle?! Count me in!

Please find all the exciting talks on the symposium’s website.

@orf1 – Fanny’s Friday

Another one on fear, this time acrophobia. Normally I assume that everything on TV is staged for your entertainment. The wonderful Isabella Purkart who interviewed me was really, really terrified of heights. The whole show was quite an ordeal for her. At the end, she managed to climb all the 183 of the Vienna Jubiläumswarte. Not only was she rewarded with a fantastic view over our city and the Wienerwald, she also got a first hand experience how confrontation helped her to overcome her fear. Great job!

Why are we excited about predictive processing?

The lovely people from the brainstorms group invited me to give an online talk about predictive processing. Predictive processing theory suggests that all brain functions depend on comparisons between ongoing actual experiences and the brain’s expectations. It suggests that expectations and predictions about reality are, probably, more important than the direct live sensory evidence that the brain receives. But is it just a new data modelling method? Does it describe just one aspect of cognition? No, there is much more potential. Let us look at the loose ends of present day cognitive (neuro)science to see why we can be really excited about predictive processing.

Watch my talk on facebook

@orf2 – Covid-19, whatever next?

Using our brain we predict the future based on what we have learnt in the past. But what if there is no precedence to learn from? How can we cope with lock-downs, isolation, existential crises, and fear of an unknown infection?

Covid-19 brings most of us out of their comfort zone but we are built for enduring hardships and uncertainty.

I was invited to an afternoon TV talk show to discuss my outlook on the future with social economics Prof. Marina Fischer-Kowalski, psychologist Irina Nalis, behavioral biologist Gregor Fauma and Matthias & Tristan Horx.