The feeling, acting brain as a causality engine

What gets you out of bed in the morning? Are our feelings really just a bag of irrational tricks thrown together by evolutionary accident, or are there real reasons for us to act as we do? How does 1.4kg of spongy meat trapped in a big white bone help us live proactively as individuals with meaningful lives?

Neuroscience is coming to view the brain not as a passive organ of intellect, derailed by emotional spasms, but as a proactive organ of feeling, action, and causation. Your situation changes moment to moment, and ensuring your well-being across those changes requires predictive regulation. In every moment, your brain needs to infer, from nothing but experience and sensorimotor data: who am I, how do I feel, what’s going on, and what can I do about it?

To do so, the feeling brain implements some of the finest intellectual instruments of thought we have today: hierarchical probabilistic inference, causal learning, and active inference. I therefore see probability and information as fundamental to what life is: coffee cups cooling, evolution, embodied feeling, intellect, and agency may all have to obey probabilistic laws.

To pursue these ideas, I work in the Probabilistic Modeling Lab at Northeastern University’s CCIS, as well as the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory. We use the tools of machine learning, statistics, and computation to study the deep questions at the heart of neuroscience, cognition, and agency. Potential applications range from building machines that feel, value, and engage the world like people, to computational psychiatry, to philosophical issues.

We’re making the world a better place through probabilistic programming!