A basic feature of intelligent systems such as the cerebral cortex is the ability to freely associate aspects of perceived experience with an internal representation of the world and make predictions about the future. Here, a hypothesis is presented that the extraordinary performance of the cortex derives from an associative mechanism built in at the cellular level to the basic cortical neuronal unit: the pyramidal cell. The mechanism is robustly triggered by coincident input to opposite poles of the neuron, is exquisitely matched to the large- and fine-scale architecture of the cortex, and is tightly controlled by local microcircuits of inhibitory neurons targeting subcellular compartments. This article explores the experimental evidence and the implications for how the cortex operates.
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