Decoding the Brain: Neural Representation and the Limits of Multivariate Pattern Analysis in Cognitive Neuroscience

Br J Philos Sci. 2019 Jun;70(2):581-607. doi: 10.1093/bjps/axx023. Epub 2017 Sep 6.


Since its introduction, multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA), or 'neural decoding', has transformed the field of cognitive neuroscience. Underlying its influence is a crucial inference, which we call the decoder's dictum: if information can be decoded from patterns of neural activity, then this provides strong evidence about what information those patterns represent. Although the dictum is a widely held and well-motivated principle in decoding research, it has received scant philosophical attention. We critically evaluate the dictum, arguing that it is false: decodability is a poor guide for revealing the content of neural representations. However, we also suggest how the dictum can be improved on, in order to better justify inferences about neural representation using MVPA. 1Introduction2A Brief Primer on Neural Decoding: Methods, Application, and Interpretation 2.1What is multivariate pattern analysis?2.2The informational benefits of multivariate pattern analysis3Why the Decoder's Dictum Is False 3.1We don't know what information is decoded3.2The theoretical basis for the dictum3.3Undermining the theoretical basis4Objections and Replies 4.1Does anyone really believe the dictum?4.2Good decoding is not enough4.3Predicting behaviour is not enough5Moving beyond the Dictum6Conclusion.