The opening line in Aristotle’s Metaphysics asserts that “humans desire to understand”, establishing understanding as the defining characteristic of the human mind and human species. What is understanding and what role does it play in cognition, what advantages does it confer, what brain mechanisms are involved? The Webster’s Dictionary defines understanding as “apprehending general relations in a multitude of particulars.” A proposal discussed in this chapter defines understanding as a form of active inference in self-adaptive systems seeking to expand their inference domains while minimizing metabolic costs incurred in the expansions. Under the same proposal, understanding is viewed as an advanced adaptive mechanism involving self-directed construction of mental models establishing relations between domain entities. Understanding complements learning and serves to overcome the inertia of learned behavior when conditions are unfamiliar or deviate from those experienced in the past. While learning is common across all animals, understanding is unique to the human species. This chapter will unpack these notions, focusing on different facets of understanding. The proposal formulates hypotheses regarding the underlying neuronal mechanisms, attempting to assess their plausibility and reconcile them with the recent ideas and findings concerning brain functional architecture.
Part of the book: Connectivity and Functional Specialization in the Brain