Bayesian brains and the rényi divergence

Noor Sajid, Francesco Faccio, Lancelot Da Costa, Thomas Parr, Jürgen Schmidhuber, Karl Friston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Under the Bayesian brain hypothesis, behavioral variations can be attributed to different priors over generative model parameters. This provides a formal explanation for why individuals exhibit inconsistent behavioral preferences when confronted with similar choices. For example, greedy preferences are a consequence of confident (or precise) beliefs over certain outcomes. Here, we offer an alternative account of behavioral variability using Rényi divergences and their associated variational bounds. Rényi bounds are analogous to the variational free energy (or evidence lower bound) and can be derived under the same assumptions. Importantly, these bounds provide a formal way to establish behavioral differences through an α parameter, given fixed priors. This rests on changes in α that alter the bound (on a continuous scale), inducing different posterior estimates and consequent variations in behavior. Thus, it looks as if individuals have different priors and have reached different conclusions. More specifically, α → 0+ optimization constrains the variational posterior to be positive whenever the true posterior is positive. This leads to mass-covering variational estimates and increased variability in choice behavior. Furthermore, α →+∞optimization constrains the variational posterior to be zero whenever the true posterior is zero. This leads to mass-seeking variational posteriors and greedy preferences. We exemplify this formulation through simulations of the multiarmed bandit task. We note that these α parameterizations may be especially relevant (i.e., shape preferences) when the true posterior is not in the same family of distributions as the assumed (simpler) approximate density, which may be the case in many real-world scenarios. The ensuing departure from vanilla variational inference provides a potentially useful explanation for differences in behavioral preferences of biological (or artificial) agents under the assumption that the brain performs variational Bayesian inference.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)829-855
Number of pages27
JournalNeural Computation
Issue number4
StatePublished - Mar 23 2022
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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