The theory of localist representation and of a purely abstract cognitive system: The evidence from cortical columns, category cells, and multisensory neurons

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The debate about representation in the brain and the nature of the cognitive system has been going on for decades now. This paper examines the neurophysiological evidence, primarily from single cell recordings, to get a better perspective on both the issues. After an initial review of some basic concepts, the paper reviews the data from single cell recordings - in cortical columns and of category-selective and multisensory neurons. In neuroscience, columns in the neocortex (cortical columns) are understood to be a basic functional/computational unit. The paper reviews the fundamental discoveries about the columnar organization and finds that it reveals a massively parallel search mechanism. This columnar organization could be the most extensive neurophysiological evidence for the widespread use of localist representation in the brain. The paper also reviews studies of category-selective cells. The evidence for category-selective cells reveals that localist representation is also used to encode complex abstract concepts at the highest levels of processing in the brain. A third major issue is the nature of the cognitive system in the brain and whether there is a form that is purely abstract and encoded by single cells. To provide evidence for a single-cell based purely abstract cognitive system, the paper reviews some of the findings related to multisensory cells. It appears that there is widespread usage of multisensory cells in the brain in the same areas where sensory processing takes place. Plus there is evidence for abstract modality invariant cells at higher levels of cortical processing. Overall, that reveals the existence of a purely abstract cognitive system in the brain. The paper also argues that since there is no evidence for dense distributed representation and since sparse representation is actually used to encode memories, there is actually no evidence for distributed representation in the brain. Overall, it appears that, at an abstract level, the brain is a massively parallel, distributed computing system that is symbolic. The paper also explains how grounded cognition and other theories of the brain are fully compatible with localist representation and a purely abstract cognitive system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number186
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberFEB
StatePublished - Feb 16 2017


  • Abstract cognitive system
  • Amodal representation
  • Category cells
  • Cortical columns
  • Distributed representation
  • Localist representation
  • Multisensory neurons
  • Theory of the brain

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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