Information and the function of neurons

Many of us consider it uncontroversial that information processing is a natural function of the brain. Since functions in biology are only won through empirical investigation, there should be a significant body of unambiguous evidence that supports this functional claim. Before we can interpret the evidence, however, we must ask what it means for a biological system to process information. Although a concept of information is generally accepted in the neurosciences without critique, in other biological sciences applications of information, despite careful analysis, remain controversial. In this work I will review classical stimulus-response studies in neuroscience and use Claude Shannon’s mathematical information theory as a starting point to interpret information processing as a function of the brain. I will illustrate a disanalogy between Shannon’s communication model (source, encode, channel, receiver, decode) and neural systems, and will argue that the neural code is not very code-like in comparison to genetic and engineered codes. I suggest that we have conflated the act of representing neuroscientific facts—which we do to summarize and communicate our findings with others—with taking experimental facts to be representations.
Keywords information theory  neuroscience  function
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