, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 161-194

The New Associationism: A Neural Explanation for the Predictive Powers of Cerebral Cortex

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Abstract

The ability to predict is the most importantability of the brain. Somehow, the cortex isable to extract regularities from theenvironment and use those regularities as abasis for prediction. This is a most remarkableskill, considering that behaviourallysignificant environmental regularities are noteasy to discern: they operate not only betweenpairs of simple environmental conditions, astraditional associationism has assumed, butamong complex functions of conditions that areorders of complexity removed from raw sensoryinputs. We propose that the brain's basicmechanism for discovering such complexregularities is implemented in the dendritictrees of individual pyramidal cells in thecerebral cortex. Pyramidal cells have 5–8principal dendrites, each of which is capableof learning nonlinear input-to-outputtransfer functions. We propose that eachdendrite is trained, in learning its transferfunction, by all the other principal dendritesof the same cell. These dendrites teach eachother to respond to their separate inputs withmatching outputs. Exposed to differentbut related information about the sensoryenvironment, principal dendrites of the samecell tune to functions over environmentalconditions that, while different, arecorrelated. As a result, the cell as awhole tunes to the source of the regularitiesdiscovered by the cooperating dendrites,creating a new representation. When organizedinto feed-forward/feedback layers, pyramidalcells can build their discoveries on thediscoveries of other cells, graduallyuncovering nature's hidden order. Theresulting associative network is powerfulenough to meet a troubling traditionalobjection to associationism: that it is toosimple an architecture to implement rationalprocesses.