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HUMANS: A HISTORY OF PREDICTING

The ability to bring cognitive talent to bear on predicting what might happen next is one way humans have learned to survive as a species. Nomadic tribes, for example, use prediction as a way of life. As they travel from place to place, members of the tribe predict where they might find herds of game, where they might find sources of water, where potential enemies might be hiding out, or where friends and trading partners might be located.

For about 11,000 years, many cultures have produced food and relied on prediction to ensure a stable food supply.  To be a farmer is to be a prognosticator.  Will there be a drought this year or next?  How much land can I cultivate if I hire ten people to work for me this year?  What will be the long-term effect if I continue to use certain herbicides or pesticides on my farm?

Jared Diamond (1999) proposed that successful domestication of plants and animals led to food storage and surpluses which, when coupled with many other factors, led to some cultures becoming technologically more advanced.  Without predictive abilities, Diamond contends, food production on such a scale would not have been possible and the technology we now find commonplace might not yet exist.  In other words, our ability to predict resulted in the advancement of society.

Predictions Reduce Uncertainty

Predictions are the means we use to reduce those elements of our world about which we are uncertain.  The way we do that is to continually aggregate or collect information and compare that against other knowledge we have stored away.  Without stored information and the ability to gather new information, predictions are little more than wild guesses.  Such guesses are useless in making sense of an environment upon which we depend for survival and for meaning.  Predictions allow people to examine their past and present situations to make meaningful new estimations about what the future might hold.

Given the importance of human predictive ability, we can ask ourselves how the brain makes sense of the world in order to make predictions.  Bound up in the capacity to make predictions are theories of memory, learning, and recall—elements that allow for receiving, storing and retrieving information, critical components in making predictions.

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