Spontaneous cortical activity reveals hallmarks of an optimal internal model of the environment.
The brain maintains internal models of its environment to interpret sensory inputs and to prepare actions. Although behavioral studies have demonstrated that these internal models are optimally adapted to the statistics of the environment, the neural underpinning of this adaptation is unknown. Using a Bayesian model of sensory cortical processing, we related stimulus-evoked and spontaneous neural activities to inferences and prior expectations in an internal model and predicted that they should match if the model is statistically optimal. To test this prediction, we analyzed visual cortical activity of awake ferrets during development. Similarity between spontaneous and evoked activities increased with age and was specific to responses evoked by natural scenes. This demonstrates the progressive adaptation of internal models to the statistics of natural stimuli at the neural level.