The feeling of grip: novelty, error dynamics, and the predictive brain

Julian Kiverstein, Mark Miller, Erik Rietveld

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

49 Citations (Scopus)


According to the free energy principle biological agents resist a tendency to disorder in their interactions with a dynamically changing environment by keeping themselves in sensory and physiological states that are expected given their embodiment and the niche they inhabit (Friston in Nat Rev Neurosci 11(2):127–138, 2010. doi:10.1038/nrn2787). Why would a biological agent that aims at minimising uncertainty in its encounters with the world ever be motivated to seek out novelty? Novelty for such an agent would arrive in the form of sensory and physiological states that are unexpected. Such an agent ought therefore to avoid novel and surprising interactions with the world one might think. Yet humans and many other animals find play and other forms of novelty-seeking and exploration hugely rewarding. How can this be understood in frameworks for studying the mind that emphasise prediction error minimisation? This problem has been taken up in recent research concerned with epistemic action—actions an agent engages in to reduce uncertainty. However that work leaves two questions unanswered, which it is the aim of our paper to address. First, no account has been given yet of why it should feel good to the agent to engage the world playfully and with curiosity. Second an appeal is made to precision-estimation to explain epistemic action, yet it remains unclear how precision-weighting works in action more generally, or active inference. We argue that an answer to both questions may lie in the bodily states of an agent that track the rate at which free energy is being reduced. The recent literature on the predictive brain has connected the valence of emotional experiences to the rate of change in the reduction of prediction error (Joffily and Coricelli in PLoS Comput Biol 9(6):e1003094, 2013. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003094; Van de Cruys, in Metzinger and Wiese (eds) Philosophy and predictive processing, vol 24, MIND Group, Frankfurt am Main, 2017. doi:10.15502/9783958573253). In this literature valenced emotional experiences are hypothesised to be identical with changes in the rate at which prediction error is reduced. Experiences are negatively valenced when overall prediction error increases and are positively valenced when the sum of prediction errors decrease. We offer an ecological-enactive interpretation of the concept of valence and its connection to rate of change of prediction error. We show how rate of change should be understood in terms of embodied states of affordance-related action readiness. We then go on to apply this ecological-enactive account of error dynamics to provide an answer to the first question we have raised: It may explain why it should feel good to an agent to be curious and playful. Our ecological-enactive account also allows us to show how error dynamics may provide an answer to the second question we have raised regarding how precision-weighting works in active inference. An agent that is sensitive to rates of error reduction can tune precision on the fly. We show how this ability to tune precision on the go can allow agents to develop skills for adapting better and better to the unexpected, and search out opportunities for resolving uncertainty and progressing in its learning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2847-2869
Number of pages23
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jul 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Curiosity
  • Decision-making
  • Embodied cognition
  • Emotion
  • Enactive cognitive science
  • Epistemic value
  • Error dynamics
  • Exploit-explore dilemma
  • Free energy principle
  • Predictive processing

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