Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Firework Analogy for Sustained Neural Firing

Pretend that you are lying on your back watching fireworks. Imagine that each firework explodes in the same area of the sky, one after another. A giant constellation of points appears, disappears and is replaced by an entirely new, unrelated constellation of points. This is what the distribution of neural activity is like in a lower animal. The animal is constantly recreating its representation of its environment, using a new set of neurons. More intelligent animals, like mammals, have neurons in association areas that are capable of prolonged firing. How would this prolonged firing change the firework pattern?

Now imagine a higher animal that has cells that show sustained firing. Imagine that some of the small points of light in the previous firework, don’t fade rapidly but rather remain, suspended in the sky. They persist there even through the explosion of 1, 2, even 3 subsequent fireworks. Imagine that each of these subsequent fireworks also have points of light that remain persistently. Now the firework display is much more interesting and temporally dynamic (especially if each firework is a different color) and it serves as a nice visual analogy for the persistence of information in working memory, made possible by sustained neural firing. If this persistence didn’t exist we would lose most of our mental continuity and individual, instantaneous mental states would be discrete and could not carry over information to subsequent states. Without prolonged neural firing, human experience and capabilities would be vastly different.

Read the full article that I wrote on this topic here:



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