The grandmother cell is a hypothetical neuron that represents a complex but specific concept or object. It activates when a person "sees, hears, or otherwise sensibly discriminates" a specific entity, such as his or her grandmother. The term was coined around 1969 by Jerry Lettvin. A similar concept was proposed two years earlier by Jerzy Konorski of a gnostic neuron.
Face selective cells
Visual neurons in the inferior temporal cortex of the monkey fire selectively to hands and faces. These cells are selective in that they do not fire for other visual objects important for monkeys such as fruit and genitalia. Research finds that some of these cells can be trained to show high specificity for arbitrary visual objects, and these would seem to fit the requirements of gnostic/grandmother cells. In addition, evidence exists for cells in the human hippocampus that have highly selective responses to gnostic categories including highly selective responses to individual human faces.
However most of the reported face-selective cells are not grandmother/gnostic cells since they do not represent a specific percept, that is, they are not cells narrowly selective in their activations for one face and only one face irrespective of transformations of size, orientation, and color. Even the most selective face cells usually also discharge, if more weakly, to a variety of individual faces. Furthermore, face-selective cells often vary in their responsiveness to different aspects of faces. This suggests that cell responsiveness arises from the need of a monkey to differentiate among different individual faces rather than among other categories of stimuli such as bananas with their discrimination properties linked to the fact that different individual faces are much more similar to each other in their overall organization and fine detail than other kinds of stimuli. Moreover, it has been suggested that these cells might in fact be responding as specialized feature detector neurons that only function in the holistic context of a face construct.
One idea has been that such cells form ensembles for the coarse or distributed coding of faces rather than detectors for specific faces. Thus, a specific grandmother may be represented by a specialized ensemble of grandmother or near grandmother cells.
Individual specific recognition cells
In 2005, a UCLA and Caltech study found evidence of different grandmother cells that represent people like Bill Clinton or Jennifer Aniston. A neuron for Halle Berry, for example, might respond "to the concept, the abstract entity, of Halle Berry", and would fire not only for images of Halle Berry, but also to the actual name "Halle Berry". However, there is no suggestion in that study that only the cell being monitored responded to that concept, nor was it suggested that no other actress would cause that cell to respond (although several other presented images of actresses did not cause it to respond).
Sparseness vs distributed representations
The grandmother cell hypothesis, more technically known as sparseness, is not universally accepted. The opposite of the grandmother cell theory is the distributed representation theory, that states that a specific stimulus is coded by its unique pattern of activity over a group of neurons.
The arguments against the sparseness include:
- According to some theories, one would need thousands of cells for each face, as any given face must be recognised from many different angles – profile, 3/4 view, full frontal, from above, etc.
- Rather than becoming more and more specific as visual processing proceeds from retina through the different visual centres of the brain, the image is partially dissected into basic features such as vertical lines, colour, speed, etc., distributed in various modules separated by relatively large distances. How all these disparate features are re-integrated to form a seamless whole is known as the binding problem.
William James in 1890 proposed a related idea of a pontifical cell. The pontifical cell is defined as a putative, and implausible, cell which had all our experiences. It is in this different from a concept specific cell in that it is the site of experience of sense data. James's 1890 pontifical cell was instead a cell "to which the rest of the brain provided a representation" of a grandmother. The experience of grandmother occurred in this cell.
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