Biological Cybernetics

, Volume 94, Issue 4, pp 325–334

Symbols as Self-emergent Entities in an Optimization Process of Feature Extraction and Predictions


DOI: 10.1007/s00422-006-0050-3

Cite this article as:
König, P. & Krüger, N. Biol Cybern (2006) 94: 325. doi:10.1007/s00422-006-0050-3


In the mammalian cortex the early sensory processing can be characterized as feature extraction resulting in local and analogue low-level representations. As a direct consequence, these map directly to the environment, but interpretation under natural conditions is ambiguous. In contrast, high-level representations for cognitive processing, e.g. language, require symbolic representations characterized by expression and syntax. The representations are binary, structured and disambiguated. However, do these fundamental functional distinctions translate into a fundamental distinction of the respective brain areas and their anatomical and physiological properties? Here we argue that the distinction between early sensory processing and higher cognitive functions may not be based on structural differences of cortical areas; instead similar learning principles acting on input signals with different statistics give rise to the observed variations of function. Firstly, we give an account of present research describing neuronal properties at early stages of sensory systems as a consequence of an optimization process over the set of natural stimuli. Secondly, addressing a stage following early visual processing we suggest to extend the unsupervised learning scheme by including predictive processes. These contain the widely used objective of temporal coherence as a special case and are a powerful approach to resolve ambiguities. Furthermore, in combination with a prior on the bandwidth of information exchange between units it leads to a condensation of information. Thirdly, as a crucial step, not only are predictive units optimized, but the selectivity of the feature extractors are adapted to allow optimal predictability. Thus, over and beyond making useful predictions, we propose that the predictability of a stimulus be in itself a selection criterion for further processing. In a hierarchical system the combined optimization process leads to entities that represent condensed pieces of knowledge and that are not analogue anymore. Instead, these entities work as arguments in a framework of transformations that realize predictions. Thus, the criteria of predictability and condensation in an optimization of sensory representations relate directly to the two defining properties of symbols of expression and syntax. In this paper, we sketch an unsupervised learning process that gradually transforms analogue local representations into discrete binary representations by means of four hypotheses. We propose that in this optimization process acting in a hierarchical system, entities emerge at, higher levels that fulfil the criteria defining symbols, instantiating qualitatively different representations at similarly structured low and high levels.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Neurobiopsychology, Institute of Cognitive ScienceUniversity OsnabrückOsnabrückGermany
  2. 2.Cognitive Vision Group, Institut for Medieteknologi og IngeniørvidenskabAalborg University CopenhagenBallerupDenmark