Grandmother cell

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A grandmother cell or a concept neuron is a neuron that responds selectively to an activation of a high level concept corresponding with an idea in the mind. Neurons of this type have been found in brains of animals from simple snails to monkeys.

Some scientists call the idea of grandmother cell a simplification, or even a joke. Even the best of the best call the concept in question (e.g. Terrence Sejnowski).

Some authors distinguish grandmother cells from gnostic cells or concept cells in that the former would be used solely to represent objects, or even objects as presented in the visual field. I ignore that distinction as uninteresting.

One of the earliest mentions of the idea of grandmother cells comes from William James (1890) who used the term pontifical cell. Since then, many scientists have arrived at the idea independently using evidence from various branches of neuroscience. Among them, one of the early proponents of the idea was a Polish neurophysiologist: Jurek Konorski (in the 1960s). His reasoning can be traced back down to the Pavlov school. In recent years, Rodrigo Quiroga has detected hippocampal cells responding selectively to faces of celebrities (see: Hippocampal concept neurons in semantic and episodic memory).

In the process of conceptualization, distributed conceptual representations gradually crystallize into cell assemblies with simpler and more specific structure. In theory, the ultimate end of that process is the emergence of a highly specific representation in the form of a concept neuron.

The concept network of the brain cannot function without highly specific concept cells. To see why, read: The truth about grandmother cells

This glossary entry is used to explain texts in SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving