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Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  290 ratings  ·  45 reviews
How is it that thoroughly physical material beings such as ourselves can think, dream, feel, create and understand ideas, theories and concepts? How does mere matter give rise to all these non-material mental states, including consciousness itself? An answer to this central question of our existence is emerging at the busy intersection of neuroscience, psychology, artifici ...more
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published November 2nd 2015 by Oxford University Press (first published September 15th 2015)
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Sep 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Surfing Uncertainty is contending with the so-called “sense-think-act” model in which a brain passively receives sensory stimuli to incorporate into a model of the world in order to whittle down to a best course of action by first running various mental simulations.

Clark’s alternative “predictive processing” model accounts for a fair degree of regularity in the world—the fact that few situations constitute entirely new experience—presenting a brain which wires itself (in a Bayesian scheme) accor
Alex Telfar
Jun 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
A quote that seems to sum up the books main point.
> We alter our predictions to fit the world, and alter the world to fit our predictions.

Main/interesting points
- We are prediction machines, always trying to predict the sensory information we are about to receive. We generate these predictions using a generative model. At the highest level we model hypotheses/causes/hidden variables and use these to generate predictions.
- Errors in prediction cause us to rethink our hypotheses at multiple differ
Kaj Sotala
Apr 16, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Invaluable and insightful theoretical explanation; at the same time, the writing tends to repeat itself and keep talking about how beautiful the brain is according to this theory. Was definitely worth reading for the content, but the style felt like it could have used an editor; frequently had to force myself to keep reading.
JM Murillo
Jun 06, 2017 rated it liked it
Very interesting topic and well researched book, but too repetitive and difficult to read for me. I wish it was shorter and more to-the-point.
May 10, 2019 rated it did not like it
After reading a few Slate Star Codex articles, I got quite interested in predictive processing (PP) and the free energy principle. I read a paper by Friston a while back and came away thinking "this is way more abstract and notationally obfuscated than it needs to be. When I try to mentally fill in the gaps, I can eventually sorta see how these ideas could actually be applied. But I'm having to do 95% of the work to reach that point, so it's not clear if the paper actually contains anything more ...more
Justin Weiss
May 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
One of the most fascinating books I've ever read, and one of the most difficult books to read I've ever experienced. It reads like a 300 page long research survey paper. It was worth it, though. I'm sure I'll be thinking about it for the rest of my life -- or, at least, unless it all turns out to be wrong!

Somehow, this book manages to weave together how it all works: everything from perception, to learning, to action, to imagination and dreaming, to mental disorders all the way to creativity and
Jul 02, 2021 rated it liked it
I found this book after reading "7 and a half lessons about the brain" by Lisa Feldman Barrett. I've always been interested in the brain and I wanted to read something more in-depth.

Clark's aim is ambitious. He is trying to offer a model of the brain that is able to explain perception, action, cognition, emotions and more from a purely materialistic worldview. His attempt at doing this is by envisioning our brain as a "prediction machine".

Others will be able to give a better summary of the boo
Jan 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
It might be my unfamiliarity with the field, but I found this book dense and jargon-heavy. There was definitely some really interesting material in there, but it was extremely slow reading relative to other nonfiction.
Peter McCluskey
Mar 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Surfing Uncertainty describes minds as hierarchies of prediction engines. Most behavior involves interactions between a stream of information that uses low-level sensory data to adjust higher level predictive models of the world, and another stream of data coming from high-level models that guides low-level sensory processes to better guess the most likely interpretations of ambiguous sensory evidence.

Clark calls this a predictive processing (PP) model; others refer to is as predictive coding.

Aug 10, 2021 rated it really liked it
Very cool 😎
Oct 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Fun? No. Enlightening? Yes.

I wish this book had been written by a more engaging author. The text felt really repetitive and long-winded. I got about halfway through before I admitted to myself I was too bored to keep panning for gold. If you have the time and patience it's worth a read, but know what you're getting yourself into.

My main takeaway from what I read: Seek and you shall find. The first half of the book was basically just a series of convincing arguments to show that the brain operate
Opo Člověk
Inspirational insight into the field of embodied cognition. I love the idea of predictive processing and active participation neural on perception. It presents promising theory of how lower level cognitive processes produce output which feeds conscious thought.
Ben Eckart
Oct 05, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book was frustrating. On one hand, it presents a lot of interesting ideas about how the mind might operate, and the theory, if correct, has important implications for things like psychiatry and AI. On the other hand, the prose is a mess and the book is disorganized. I would love a version of this book edited down to 100 pages.

The thesis of the book is that perception, cognition, and consciousness operate as a top-down generative model-- the implication here is that our conscious world is e
Chris Jones
Feb 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
I've marked this book as read but I haven't read it. I have no doubt that it's an important book and I followed along for a few chapters but it's just too technical for me. I needed to stop 3 times per page to go and look up some terms that he was using then further consider whether he was using those terms literally or metaphorically. It's a rewarding way to read but it's exhausting so for now I'm taking it off my 'currently reading' list so that it stops nagging at me and blocking me from read ...more
Mar 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Andy Clark wrote a fantastic introduction into the topic of predictive processing. The clear advantage of this account is that it enables to combine findings from all disciplines of cognitive science. But there is still much work to do ...
Jun 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is not an easy read, at least not for those who are not specialists in the philosophy of mind. The book lays out the model of the predictive mind and gives appealing and convincing arguments for this theory. It is definitely worth the effort.
Mar 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Great introduction and overview of predictive models of how the brain and cognition might work
Gregory John
Mar 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
A difficult book that often takes several re-readings of passages to get some understanding.

p.1: Rooted in the dynamics of self-organization, these ‘predictive processing’ (PP) models deliver compelling accounts of perception, action, and imaginative simulation.

p.62: The main finding, unsurprisingly, is one of facilitation: valid cues speed up detection of the target stimulus while targets presented on incongruent trials are perceived more slowly, and with less confidence.

p.120-121: Descending p
Clive F
May 21, 2019 rated it liked it
How do we know what's going on in the world? How do people come to take action based on that understanding - be it catching a ball, typing a book review, learning long division, or building a hadron collider (of any size)? Andy Clark sets out a compelling story of how all this has been coming together in neurophysiology over the last few years into a model based on a hierarchy of processing elements, from the raw sensations upwards, with feedback from the higher levels back to the lower ones.

Sep 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
At times challenging, at times repetitive, but overall immensely rewarding and fascinating read. I'm not truly immersed enough in cog sci/neurosci/phil/AI to be able to say whether predictive processing (and Friston's free energy principle) are as powerful as they claim to be, but I am inclined to think they are because they make sense of so many different phenomena. Clark covers a bunch of ground here laying out various aspects of the theory, evidence for the theory, and different ways we can u ...more
Apr 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
I remember during the years as a PhD in Cognitive Science how much I enjoyed Clark’s work. The clarity and elegance of his work on extended mind and embodied cognition was always enjoyable. It’s been some years since that time and it may be that I’m rusted re. scientific literature, but I found this book extremely dry. Or maybe it's just me too rusty for this kind of literature.

The idea that our brain is a proactive bayesian predictive engine, rather than reactive sensory->computation->reaction
Nov 14, 2021 added it
Surfing Uncertainty is a dense, challenging book for a non-specialist to read, but the model of the mind that it lays out is so illuminating that I had to (eventually) hack through it to the end. Clark's "predictive processing" model provides a surprising yet elegant explanation for a wide variety of observations about the mind, our senses, our motor actions, and certain disorders; indeed, several disorders and quirks that weren't discussed in this book seem like they'd be explained intuitively ...more
Mar 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: brain
An enthusiastic and rigorous roundup of the "predictive processing" view of the nervous system, pulling together conceptual, imaging, psych, and computational/robotics studies to make the case for a multi-layered bi-directional feedback model (no surprise yet) at all levels where the key insight is that bottom-up feedback to higher generative models takes the form of dynamically-context-weighted *prediction error* signals.

Really excellent wide-ranging applications are given from bootstrapping le
Leland William
Oct 16, 2021 rated it liked it
This is a strange book. One one hand, it is probably the most comprehensive and convincing materialist perspective on how the brain works (that I've read), on the other hand it's pretty much unreadable.

While reading I would often ricochet from "wow, that is an amazing insight" to "wtf, do these words even make sense as a sentence?" If you want to get through this book, you need to come at it with good-faith.

It was fun reading this side-by-side some other books that I've been reading that are mu
Sep 01, 2022 rated it it was ok
Some interesting musings, though the research cited, more specifically Friston's work, is not the strongest and some of the principles are unfalsifiable. This is where the philosophical tag is needed. It's fun to build a theory on how cognition and the environment might interact with one another, though a grain of salt is needed. What we actually know and what is presented in this book, shows quite a gap. It boils down to the fact that a good chunk of our knowledge about the brain's functioning ...more
Roger Whitson
Jun 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The central idea of this book is that the vast majority of our conscious experience is based upon the predictive buzz of our brain, which constantly tests its predictions against the data it receives from the world. In turn, the brain acts and tries to align the world with the predictions it makes. It's a fascinating neuroscientific development of ideas that had been incorporated into phenomenological texts like those of Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, and Whitehead. Great stuff for people interested in ...more
Jul 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is the argument that minds are prediction machines. They are not in the business of receiving inputs and producing outputs. Instead, there is a back and forth (and sideways) flow: predictions shape perception, and action and perception influences prediction. The neat phrase is that "perception is controlled hallucination."

I should note that this is not a pop-sci book. It's quite a slog in terms of detail. You're going to need some background in cognitive science or philosophy of mind to ma
Josh Marshall
Dec 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A romp through the cutting-edge understanding of how our mind works in a “predictive processing” fashion. Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ helped my thinking on mental processes, and this is a deep dive into a plausible biological and psychological explanation for the mechanism underneath. Interesting to see my own field of robotics and planning informing the research too.
Lee Barry
A useful book for anyone involved in HCI, or interface/interaction design. The book was referenced in Mathew Crawford's latest book, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road ...more
Mar 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book on cognitive science that is actually rooted in empirics as well as theory, unlike a lot of what used to be published. Not an easy read, but it is accessible to non-experts with a bit of effort.
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Brain Science Pod...: BSP 126 Andy Clark 10 35 Feb 04, 2016 04:37AM  

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