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Psychol Rev. 2009 Jan;116(1):220-51. doi: 10.1037/a0014462.

On the biological plausibility of grandmother cells: implications for neural network theories in psychology and neuroscience.

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Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol, Bristol, England.


A fundamental claim associated with parallel distributed processing (PDP) theories of cognition is that knowledge is coded in a distributed manner in mind and brain. This approach rejects the claim that knowledge is coded in a localist fashion, with words, objects, and simple concepts (e.g. "dog"), that is, coded with their own dedicated representations. One of the putative advantages of this approach is that the theories are biologically plausible. Indeed, advocates of the PDP approach often highlight the close parallels between distributed representations learned in connectionist models and neural coding in brain and often dismiss localist (grandmother cell) theories as biologically implausible. The author reviews a range a data that strongly challenge this claim and shows that localist models provide a better account of single-cell recording studies. The author also contrast local and alternative distributed coding schemes (sparse and coarse coding) and argues that common rejection of grandmother cell theories in neuroscience is due to a misunderstanding about how localist models behave. The author concludes that the localist representations embedded in theories of perception and cognition are consistent with neuroscience; biology only calls into question the distributed representations often learned in PDP models.

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