Investigating the representation of uncertainty in neuronal circuits

Guillaume P. Dehaene, Ruben Coen-Cagli, Alexandre Pouget

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Skilled behavior often displays signatures of Bayesian inference. In order for the brain to implement the required computations, neuronal activity must carry accurate information about the uncertainty of sensory inputs. Two major approaches have been proposed to study neuronal representations of uncertainty. The first one, the Bayesian decoding approach, aims primarily at decoding the posterior probability distribution of the stimulus from population activity using Bayes’ rule, and indirectly yields uncertainty estimates as a by-product. The second one, which we call the correlational approach, searches for specific features of neuronal activity (such as tuning-curve width and maximum firing-rate) which correlate with uncertainty. To compare these two approaches, we derived a new normative model of sound source localization by Interaural Time Difference (ITD), that reproduces a wealth of behavioral and neural observations. We found that several features of neuronal activity correlated with uncertainty on average, but none provided an accurate estimate of uncertainty on a trial-by-trial basis, indicating that the correlational approach may not reliably identify which aspects of neuronal responses represent uncertainty. In contrast, the Bayesian decoding approach reveals that the activity pattern of the entire population was required to reconstruct the trial-to-trial posterior distribution with Bayes’ rule. These results suggest that uncertainty is unlikely to be represented in a single feature of neuronal activity, and highlight the importance of using a Bayesian decoding approach when exploring the neural basis of uncertainty.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1008138
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Ecology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics


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