Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bolles and the Grandmother Cell

It happened again. Just last week. I was on vacation in San Francisco, strolling down a very crowded Fisherman's Warf when that familiar tickle started crawling around inside my head. I'm not sure what part of the brain it originates from but there must be a group of neurons that have been assigned the job of spotting all things Bolles. Years ago a psychologist (Barlow, 1972, Gross, 2002) described the phenomenon as the Grandmother cell; a single neuron or group of neurons (Quiroga, 2008) that only fire when your grandmother, and only your grandmother, emters your visual field. The theory has been contested (e.g., Bowers, 2010)  but in one manner or another I am convinced that by training or habit I've managed to hard-wire a batch of brain cells to work just for Bolles. I wasn't even in this art gallery where this Bolles inspired piece (not an original, alas) was hanging, just passing by outside. But somehow before I knew why (Libet, 1985) I had backtracked a few steps and there she was. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this has happened before. Several years ago in the middle of Stockholm my spidey sense for Bolles starting tingling and there was another repurposed Bolles girl. Now if I could only fine-tune those brain cells so they would only home in on the real thing and not copies!

Barlow H.B.,(1972). Single units and sensation: a neuron doctrine for perceptual
psychology. Perception, 1, 371-394.
Bowers, J. (2010). More on grandmother cells and the biological implausibility of PDP models of cognition: A reply to Plaut and McClelland (2010) and Quian Quiroga and Kreiman (2010). Psychological Review, 117, 300-306.
   Gross C.G. (2002). Genealogy of the "Grandmother Cell". Neuroscientist, 8(5):512–518.
    Libet, B.(1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8: 529–566.
   Quiroga, R. et al (2008) Sparse but not ‘Grandmother-cell’ coding in the medial temporal lobe. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(3).



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