Hawkins and Ahmad now say they know what’s going on. Their new idea is that distal and proximal synapses play entirely different roles in the process of learning. Proximal synapses play the conventional role of triggering the cell to fire when certain patterns of connections crop up.

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But distal synapses do something else. They also recognize when certain patterns are present, but do not trigger firing. Instead, they influence the electric state of the cell in a way that makes firing more likely if another specific pattern occurs. So distal synapses prepare the cell for the arrival of other patterns. Or, as Hawkins and Ahmad put it, these synapses help the cell predict what the next pattern sensed by the proximal synapses will be.