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Psychol Rev. 2010 Jan;117(1):291-7. doi: 10.1037/a0016917.

Measuring sparseness in the brain: comment on Bowers (2009).

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Department of Engineering, University of Leicester, LE17RH, England.


Bowers challenged the common view in favor of distributed representations in psychological modeling and the main arguments given against localist and grandmother cell coding schemes. He revisited the results of several single-cell studies, arguing that they do not support distributed representations. We praise the contribution of Bowers (2009) for joining evidence from psychological modeling and neurophysiological recordings, but we disagree with several of his claims. In this comment, we argue that distinctions between distributed, localist, and grandmother cell coding can be troublesome with real data. Moreover, these distinctions seem to be lying within the same continuum, and we argue that it may be sensible to characterize coding schemes with a sparseness measure. We further argue that there may not be a unique coding scheme implemented in all brain areas and for all possible functions. In particular, current evidence suggests that the brain may use distributed codes in primary sensory areas and sparser and invariant representations in higher areas.

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