Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Minsky on Gallistel

I once heard of a class tight in the great days of literary theory entitled something like "The influence of Philip Roth on Charles Dickens."  My memory tingles the suggestion that I have the names wrong here, but I am pretty sure that I got the gist right. A linguistic version of this might be "The influence of Chomsky on von Humboldt." The idea is that we see the past more clearly, when we see the present concepts more clearly. The inimitable intellectual archivist Bob Berwick sent me this great quote from Marvin Minsky:

“Unfortunately, there is still very little definite knowledge about, and not even any generally accepted theory of, how information is stored in nervous systems, i.e., how they learn. … One form of theory would propose that short-term memory is ‘dynamic’—stored in the form of pulses reverberating around closed chains of neurons. … Recently, there have been a number of publications proposing that memory is stored, like genetic information, in the form of nucleic-acid chains, but I have not seen any of these theories worked out to include plausible read-in and read-out mechanisms. (Minsky 1967, 66). Minsky, Finite and Infinite Machines.
So, it seems that Randy's conjecture has a distinguished pedigree and we cog-neuro has investigated the theory of genetic information storage largely by ignoring it. Let's hope that this time around this alternative hypothesis, one which really would challenge long held views in cog-neuro, is carefully vetted. Conceptually, the Gallistel view seems to me very strong. This does not mean that it is right, but it does mean that a perfectly reasonable alternative view has not even been pursued.

1 comment:

  1. A somewhat similar sentiment is expressed in the Borges story "Kafka and his precursors": "The poem "Fears and Scruples" by Browning foretells Kafka's work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now."