[FRIAM] : Is coding a relevant metaphor for the brain?

Nick Thompson nickthompson at earthlink.net
Wed Feb 13 19:55:33 EST 2019

This struck me as the right conclusion but the wrong reasoning.  Coding might be a bad metaphor for perception, but not because there is no structure in the input.  Do I misunderstand? 


See below

Nicholas S. Thompson
Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Biology
Clark University

-----Original Message-----
From: em.bbs.0.614278.39c22ab7 at editorialmanager.com [mailto:em.bbs.0.614278.39c22ab7 at editorialmanager.com] On Behalf Of Behavioral and Brain Sciences
Sent: Wednesday, February 13, 2019 4:59 PM
To: Nicholas S Thompson <nickthompson at earthlink.net>
Subject: BBS Call for Commentary Proposals: Brette

Dear Dr. Thompson:

We are writing you to announce that BBS has just accepted an article for open peer commentary in BBS. The article was already reviewed, and we are now accepting commentary proposals. If you are interested in writing a commentary, you are welcome to submit a short proposal (see instructions below). No action is required if you aren't interested. 

Please DO NOT submit a full commentary article unless you are formally invited---AFTER you submit a commentary *proposal*. We will review all commentary proposals and issue invitations in April. Also, please be aware that we typically receive far more commentary proposals than we can accommodate with formal invitations. When choosing invitations, we balance over multiple factors, including the interest of the commentary itself, the commentator's expertise, whether the commentator's work has been discussed in the target article, and other considerations.


Target Article: Is coding a relevant metaphor for the brain?

Authors: Romain Brette

Deadline for Commentary Proposals: Wednesday March 6, 2019

Abstract: "Neural coding" is a popular metaphor in neuroscience, where objective properties of the world are communicated to the brain in the form of spikes. Here I argue that this metaphor is often inappropriate and misleading. First, when neurons are said to encode experimental parameters, the neural code depends on experimental details that are not carried by the coding variable (e.g. the spike count). Thus, the representational power of neural codes is much more limited than generally implied. Second, neural codes carry information only by reference to things with known meaning. In contrast, perceptual systems must build information from relations between sensory signals and actions, forming an internal model. Neural codes are inadequate for this purpose because they are unstructured and therefore unable to represent relations. Third, coding variables are observables tied to the temporality of experiments, while spikes are timed actions that mediate coupling in a distributed dynamical system. The coding metaphor tries to fit the dynamic, circular and distributed causal structure of the brain into a linear chain of transformations between observables, but the two causal structures are incongruent. I conclude that the neural coding metaphor cannot provide a valid basis for theories of brain function, because it is incompatible with both the causal structure of the brain and the representational requirements of cognition. 

Keywords: neural coding; information; perception; sensorimotor; action

Download Target Article Preprint:   

(Depending on your browser, the PDF will either load in a separate window, from which you can download the PDF, or will download directly to your computer.) 



1. Name of the target article for which you are submitting a commentary proposal. 

2. All authors, including any possible co-authors, listed at the top of your submission document.

3. What aspect of the target article or book you would anticipate commenting on. 

4. The relevant expertise you would bring to bear on the target article or book.

Please number these sections in your proposal: 1., 2., 3., 4.


In addition to the open "Call for Commentary Proposals," we invite commentators who do not submit proposals—these include reviewers of the paper, scholars whose work is discussed in the paper, and commentators suggested by the authors. (Obviously, these can be overlapping sets.) Once we subtract this set, only about 20 submitted proposals from the Call for Commentary Proposals can be invited to write a commentary. 

Commentary selection is necessarily multifactorial. It must be balanced to a degree across the various fields of cognitive science, point of view of the article, and several other aspects of academic diversity. The number of proposals can vary widely, however, depending on the topic, the range is from 15 to 150! In the latter case, when we can accept only a little over 1 in 10 of the proposals, a few things will facilitate a positive reading of a proposal, and hopefully acceptance, given the constraints:

1. The proposal for the commentary should not be longer than the commentary, 1,000 words. 100-500 is optimal, and we value succinctness.  On the other hand, "I intend to comment on X aspect of the target article" is not enough.  Are you for it, against it, or extending it?   

2. Under no circumstances should proposers simply write a commentary and submit it to us.
3. Proposers should clearly state what aspect of the target article they intend to comment on.  It's quite obvious when proposers are using the commentary forum only to promote their own research and not engage with the target article. Such proposals are routinely declined.

4. Concerning "the relevant expertise you would bring to bear": While the editors have a generally good idea of who is active in the fields of the target article, we must cover a wide range and may be unaware of the people who have been most productive and influential in a given area, or the scholars who have engaged in heated debate with the authors in the past. So, the editors will be greatly helped if every proposer states their position in the field and lists between 2-10 relevant publications, again succinctly. On the other side of the spectrum, under no circumstances should an entire CV be included.

5. BUT … it's not all about articles previously published, or position in the field. It's not necessary to have published in the area, and it's not necessary to have a current academic appointment.  We make efforts to include proposals coming both from established figures and total newcomers. An engaging idea elicited by the article, an illuminating application of the target article concept to an allied field, or a truly clever riposte is often all that's needed. 

6. Being a co-author on multiple proposals directed to one target article will almost certainly remove one set of your co-authors or the other from contention altogether, which will put you in an unpleasant game theoretic situation with your colleagues. Do this carefully, if at all.

7. We make our choices mostly on quality and fit, but we do want to open up BBS to as many individuals as possible. If you've written one or more other commentaries recently, your odds of having another one accepted will correspondingly go down, though not to zero.


If you would like to nominate yourself for potential commentary invitation, you must submit a commentary proposal via our BBS Editorial Manager site:

1. Log-in to your BBS Editorial Manager account as an author:


Username: NThompson-693
Password: You will also need to enter your password. If you have forgotten it, you may click Send Login Details. 

If you do not have an account, please visit the site and register. 

2. Submit New Manuscript

Within your author main menu please select Submit New Manuscript.

3. Select Article Type

Choose the article type of your manuscript from the pull-down menu. Commentary proposal article types are temporarily created for each accepted target article or book. Only select the commentary proposal article type that you wish to submit a proposal on. For example: "Commentary Proposal (Brette)"

4. Enter Title

Please title your proposal submission by indicating the relevant first author name of the target article or book. For example: "Commentary Proposal on Brette"

5. Add Co-Authors

If you are proposing to write a commentary with any co-authors, the system will not allow you to enter their information here. Instead, include their names at the top of the commentary proposal document you upload. These potential co-authors need not contribute to the commentary proposal itself.

6. Attach Files

The only required submission Item is your commentary proposal in .DOC(X) or .RTF format. In the description field please add the first author name of the target article or book. For example: "Commentary Proposal on Brette"

7. Approve Your Submission

Editorial Manager will process your commentary proposal submission and will create a PDF for your approval. On the "Submissions Waiting for Author's Approval" page, you can view your PDF, edit, approve, or remove the submission. (You might have to wait several minutes for the blue "Action" menu to appear, allowing you to approve.) Once you have Approved the Submission, the PDF will be sent to the editorial office. 

**It is VERY important that you check and approve your commentary proposal manuscript as described above. Otherwise, we cannot process your submission.**

8. Editorial Office Decision

At the conclusion of the commentary proposal period, the editors will review all the submitted commentary proposals. An undetermined number of commentary proposals will be approved and those author names will be added to the final commentary invitation list. At that time you will be notified of the decision. If you are formally invited to submit a commentary, you will be asked to confirm your intention to submit by the commentary deadline.

Note: Before the commentary invitations are sent, the copy-edited and revised target article will be posted for invitees. 

Please do not write a commentary unless you have received an official invitation!


If you DO NOT wish to receive call for commentary proposals in the future, please reply to bbsjournal at cambridge.org, and type "remove" in the subject line.


To suggest others as possible commentators, or to nominate others for BBS Associateship status, please email bbsjournal at cambridge.org. 


Gennifer Levey
Managing Editor, BBS
Cambridge University Press
bbsjournal at cambridge.org

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