I, NEURON: the neuron as the collective

Kybernetes 46:1508-1526 (2017)
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Purpose – In the last half-century, individual sensory neurons have been bestowed with characteristics of the whole human being, such as behavior and its oft-presumed precursor, consciousness. This anthropomorphization is pervasive in the literature. It is also absurd, given what we know about neurons, and it needs to be abolished. This study aims to first understand how it happened, and hence why it persists. Design/methodology/approach – The peer-reviewed sensory-neurophysiology literature extends to hundreds (perhaps thousands) of papers. Here, more than 90 mainstream papers were scrutinized. Findings – Anthropomorphization arose because single neurons were cast as “observers” who “identify”, “categorize”, “recognize”, “distinguish” or “discriminate” the stimuli, using math-based algorithms that reduce (“decode”) the stimulus-evoked spike trains to the particular stimuli inferred to elicit them. Without “decoding”, there is supposedly no perception. However, “decoding” is both unnecessary and unconfirmed. The neuronal “observer” in fact consists of the laboratory staff and the greater society that supports them. In anthropomorphization, the neuron becomes the collective. Research limitations/implications – Anthropomorphization underlies the widespread application to neurons Information Theory and Signal Detection Theory, making both approaches incorrect. Practical implications – A great deal of time, money and effort has been wasted on anthropomorphic Reductionist approaches to understanding perception and consciousness. Those resources should be diverted into more-fruitful approaches. Originality/value – A long-overdue scrutiny of sensory-neuroscience literature reveals that anthropomorphization, a form of Reductionism that involves the presumption of single-neuron consciousness, has run amok in neuroscience. Consciousness is more likely to be an emergent property of the brain.
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