Is coding a relevant metaphor for the brain?

Behav Brain Sci. 2018 Jul 16;42:e215. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X19000049.


"Neural coding" is a popular metaphor in neuroscience, where objective properties of the world are communicated to the brain in the form of spikes. Here I argue that this metaphor is often inappropriate and misleading. First, when neurons are said to encode experimental parameters, the neural code depends on experimental details that are not carried by the coding variable (e.g., the spike count). Thus, the representational power of neural codes is much more limited than generally implied. Second, neural codes carry information only by reference to things with known meaning. In contrast, perceptual systems must build information from relations between sensory signals and actions, forming an internal model. Neural codes are inadequate for this purpose because they are unstructured and therefore unable to represent relations. Third, coding variables are observables tied to the temporality of experiments, whereas spikes are timed actions that mediate coupling in a distributed dynamical system. The coding metaphor tries to fit the dynamic, circular, and distributed causal structure of the brain into a linear chain of transformations between observables, but the two causal structures are incongruent. I conclude that the neural coding metaphor cannot provide a valid basis for theories of brain function, because it is incompatible with both the causal structure of the brain and the representational requirements of cognition.

Keywords: action; information; neural coding; perception; sensorimotor.

MeSH terms

  • Brain* / physiology
  • Cognition
  • Humans
  • Metaphor*
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neurons / physiology