Information Theory’s failure in neuroscience: on the limitations of cybernetics

In Proceedings of the IEEE 2014 Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century (2014)
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In Cybernetics (1961 Edition), Professor Norbert Wiener noted that “The role of information and the technique of measuring and transmitting information constitute a whole discipline for the engineer, for the neuroscientist, for the psychologist, and for the sociologist”. Sociology aside, the neuroscientists and the psychologists inferred “information transmitted” using the discrete summations from Shannon Information Theory. The present author has since scrutinized the psychologists’ approach in depth, and found it wrong. The neuroscientists’ approach is highly related, but remains unexamined. Neuroscientists quantified “the ability of [physiological sensory] receptors (or other signal-processing elements) to transmit information about stimulus parameters”. Such parameters could vary along a single continuum (e.g., intensity), or along multiple dimensions that altogether provide a Gestalt – such as a face. Here, unprecedented scrutiny is given to how 23 neuroscience papers computed “information transmitted” in terms of stimulus parameters and the evoked neuronal spikes. The computations relied upon Shannon’s “confusion matrix”, which quantifies the fidelity of a “general communication system”. Shannon’s matrix is square, with the same labels for columns and for rows. Nonetheless, neuroscientists labelled the columns by “stimulus category” and the rows by “spike-count category”. The resulting “information transmitted” is spurious, unless the evoked spike-counts are worked backwards to infer the hypothetical evoking stimuli. The latter task is probabilistic and, regardless, requires that the confusion matrix be square. Was it? For these 23 significant papers, the answer is No.

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