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The place of 'codes' in nonlinear neurodynamics

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A key problem in cognitive science is to explain the neural mechanisms of the rapid transposition between stimulus energy and abstract concept — between the specific and the generic — in both material and conceptual aspects, not between neural and psychic aspects. Three approaches by researchers to a solution in terms of neural codes are considered. Materialists seek rate and frequency codes in the interspike intervals of trains of action potentials induced by stimuli and carried by topologically organized axonal lines. Cognitivists refer to the symbol grounding problem and search for symbolic codes in firings of hierarchically organized feature-detector neurons of phonemes, lines, odorants, pressures, etc., that object-detector neurons bind into representations of probabilities of stimulus occurrence. Dynamicists seek neural correlates of stimuli and associated behaviors in spatial patterns of oscillatory fields of dendritic activity that self-organize and evolve as trajectories through high-dimensional brain state space; the codes are landscapes of chaotic attractors. Unlike codes in DNA and the periodic table, these codes have neither alphabet nor syntax. They are epistemological metaphors required by experimentalists to measure neural activity and by engineers to model brain functions. Here I review the central neural mechanisms of olfaction as a paradigm for use of codes to explain how brains create cortical activities that mediate sensation, perception, comprehension, prediction, decision, and action or inaction.

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