[Comp-neuro] On the existence of a purely abstract cognitive system in the brain that is based on single cells

Asim Roy ASIM.ROY at asu.edu
Tue Feb 28 08:56:27 CET 2017

The following paper was published recently in Frontiers in Psychology, Cognition:

“The theory of localist representation and of a purely abstract cognitive system: The evidence from cortical columns, category cells and multisensory neurons”

On the extensive use of abstract multisensory neurons in the brain
There is now substantial neurophysiological evidence for a purely abstract cognitive system in the brain that is based on single cells. The evidence primarily comes from abstract category cells and multisensory neurons. Multisensory neurons provide a remarkable insight to the brain. Ghazanfar & Schroeder (2006) claim that multisensory integration extend into early sensory processing areas of the brain and that neocortex is essentially multisensory. Saleem, Ayaz, Jeffery, Harris & Carandini, M. (2013) report finding nearly half of V1 neurons in mice to be multimodal integrating visual motion and locomotion during navigation. And Klemen & Chambers (2012) notes that there is now “broad consensus that most, if not all, higher, as well as lower level neural processes are in some form multisensory.” So abstractions are used extensively in the brain. And these abstraction are layered, sometimes integrating information from two modalities, sometimes three and so on. Much more evidence is discussed in the paper.

On the absence of evidence for distributed representation
It is also argued in the paper that there is no evidence for distributed representation in the brain, since, as per McClelland, the dense form (not the sparse form) is the only form that counts. And there is absolutely no evidence for the dense form (Panzeri et al. 2015).

On the compatibility of grounded cognition and an abstract cognitive system
It is also argued in the paper that such an abstract cognitive system is fully compatible with grounded and embodied cognition. And Barsalou’s (2008, p. 618) statement is very consistent with the claims made in this paper: “From the perspective of grounded cognition, it is unlikely that the brain contains amodal symbols; if it does, they work together with modal representations to create cognition.” One of Barsalou’s questions was (p. 631): “Can empirical evidence be found for the amodal symbols still believed by many to lie at the heart of cognition?” I think there is extensive evidence now that there indeed are amodal symbols in the brain and in the brains of many species.

The discovery of this purely abstract cognitive system in the brain has the potential to resolve deep theoretical conflicts in cognitive science that’s almost four decades old.

Asim Roy
Professor, Information Systems
Arizona State University

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