The neurobiology of uncertainty: Implications for statistical learning

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


The capacity for assessing the degree of uncertainty in the environment relies on estimating statistics of temporally unfolding inputs. This, in turn, allows calibration of predictive and bottom-up processing, and signalling changes in temporally unfolding environmental features. In the last decade, several studies have examined how the brain codes for and responds to input uncertainty. Initial neurobiological experiments implicated frontoparietal and hippocampal systems, based largely on paradigms that manipulated distributional features of visual stimuli. However, later work in the auditory domain pointed to different systems, whose activation profiles have interesting implications for computational and neurobiological models of statistical learning (SL). This review begins by briefly recapping the historical development of ideas pertaining to the sensitivity to uncertainty in temporally unfolding inputs. It then discusses several issues at the interface of studies of uncertainty and SL. Following, it presents several current treatments of the neurobiology of uncertainty and reviews recent findings that point to principles that serve as important constraints on future neurobiological theories of uncertainty, and relatedly, SL. This review suggests it may be useful to establish closer links between neurobiological research on uncertainty and SL, considering particularly mechanisms sensitive to local and global structure in inputs, the degree of input uncertainty, the complexity of the system generating the input, learning mechanisms that operate on different temporal scales and the use of learnt information for online prediction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20160048
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1711
StatePublished - Jan 5 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


  • Entropy
  • Grammar
  • Language
  • Regularity
  • Statistical-learning
  • Uncertainty


Dive into the research topics of 'The neurobiology of uncertainty: Implications for statistical learning'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this