The search of “canonical” explanations for the cerebral cortex

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This paper addresses a fundamental line of research in neuroscience: the identification of a putative neural processing core of the cerebral cortex, often claimed to be “canonical”. This “canonical” core would be shared by the entire cortex, and would explain why it is so powerful and diversified in tasks and functions, yet so uniform in architecture. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the search for canonical explanations over the past 40 years, discussing the theoretical frameworks informing this research. It will highlight a bias that, in my opinion, has limited the success of this research project, that of overlooking the dimension of cortical development. The earliest explanation of the cerebral cortex as canonical was attempted by David Marr, deriving putative cortical circuits from general mathematical laws, loosely following a deductive-nomological account. Although Marr’s theory turned out to be incorrect, one of its merits was to have put the issue of cortical circuit development at the top of his agenda. This aspect has been largely neglected in much of the research on canonical models that has followed. Models proposed in the 1980s were conceived as mechanistic. They identified a small number of components that interacted as a basic circuit, with each component defined as a function. More recent models have been presented as idealized canonical computations, distinct from mechanistic explanations, due to the lack of identifiable cortical components. Currently, the entire enterprise of coming up with a single canonical explanation has been criticized as being misguided, and the premise of the uniformity of the cortex has been strongly challenged. This debate is analyzed here. The legacy of the canonical circuit concept is reflected in both positive and negative ways in recent large-scale brain projects, such as the Human Brain Project. One positive aspect is that these projects might achieve the aim of producing detailed simulations of cortical electrical activity, a negative one regards whether they will be able to find ways of simulating how circuits actually develop.
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Archival date: 2018-06-22
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Thinking About Mechanisms.Machamer, Peter K.; Darden, Lindley & Craver, Carl F.
The Cognitive Neuroscience Revolution.Boone, Worth & Piccinini, Gualtiero

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