Distinguishing Representations as Origin and Representations as Input: Roles for Individual Neurons

Front Psychol. 2016 Sep 30;7:1537. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01537. eCollection 2016.


It is widely perceived that there is a problem in giving a naturalistic account of mental representation that deals adequately with the issue of meaning, interpretation, or significance (semantic content). It is suggested here that this problem may arise partly from the conflation of two vernacular senses of representation: representation-as-origin and representation-as-input. The flash of a neon sign may in one sense represent a popular drink, but to function as a representation it must provide an input to a 'consumer' in the street. The arguments presented draw on two principles - the neuron doctrine and the need for a venue for 'presentation' or 'reception' of a representation at a specified site, consistent with the locality principle. It is also argued that domains of representation cannot be defined by signal traffic, since they can be expected to include 'null' elements based on non-firing cells. In this analysis, mental representations-as-origin are distributed patterns of cell firing. Each firing cell is given semantic value in its own right - some form of atomic propositional significance - since different axonal branches may contribute to integration with different populations of signals at different downstream sites. Representations-as-input are patterns of local co-arrival of signals in the form of synaptic potentials in dendrites. Meaning then draws on the relationships between active and null inputs, forming 'scenarios' comprising a molecular combination of 'premises' from which a new output with atomic propositional significance is generated. In both types of representation, meaning, interpretation or significance pivots on events in an individual cell. (This analysis only applies to 'occurrent' representations based on current neural activity.) The concept of representations-as-input emphasizes the need for an internal 'consumer' of a representation and the dependence of meaning on the co-relationships involved in an input interaction between signals and consumer. The acceptance of this necessity provides a basis for resolving the problem that representations appear both as distributed (representation-as-origin) and as local (representation-as-input). The key implications are that representations in the brain are massively multiple both in series and in parallel, and that individual cells play specific semantic roles. These roles are discussed in relation to traditional concepts of 'gnostic' cell types.

Keywords: gnostic cell; grandmother cell; mental representation; percept; pontifical cell.