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How does surprise influence cognition and behavior?

Project description

The 'curious' aspect of surprise signals

Curiosity is the main driver of learning. In life, this can be seen in all our efforts to understand and predict future events, as well as verify expectations, beliefs, and cognitive models. Also, surprise (a distance between one’s prior and current beliefs) elicits an emotional response that strongly drives curiosity. However, the complex brain mechanisms responsible for surprise is still far from being explained. To fill this gap, the EU-funded SURPRISE project will explore how surprise is computed within sensory circuits and how it influences information-seeking behaviour. It will use a multi-scale and multi-method study for critical surprise signals to determine their impacts on cognitive and behavioural activity.


Humans, like many other species, build models of themselves and their environment, to understand the past and predict the future. These models are constantly evaluated and updated based on new, surprising input. Surprise (i.e. the distance between one’s prior and current beliefs) appears an essential ingredient in various cognitive faculties such as perception, learning, motivation and action and it strongly drives brain activity in both sub-cortical and cortical networks underlying goal-directed behavior. Yet, we currently lack a good understanding of the form and function of surprise signals in the brain.

The overall aim of this research proposal is to elucidate how surprise is computed within sensory circuits and how it influences information seeking behavior. To achieve this, I will: 1) test the theoretical proposition that surprise signals emerge from the discrepancy between prediction signals and input signals that are represented in distinct layers of the neocortex, using ultra-high field neuroimaging in human volunteers; 2) investigate how sensory surprise signals may be communicated to downstream areas to update the brain’s attentional sampling policies; and 3) investigate the relationship between sensory surprise and the explicit drive for information that we call curiosity.

This proposal bridges several levels of analysis (from laminar circuit models that calculate sensory surprise to systems neuroscience and computational models of behavior) and several cognitive domains (perception, attention, motivation and curiosity). This multi-scale and multi-method investigation of surprise signals is critical for a more complete and integrated understanding of what may be one of the most important drivers of cognition and behavior.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 2 000 000,00
6525 XZ Nijmegen

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Oost-Nederland Gelderland Arnhem/Nijmegen
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 2 000 000,00

Beneficiaries (1)