The Brain Is a Statistical Engine

Question: Why is statistics so important for the realm of neuroscience?

Adam Kepecs:
So 500 years ago Galileo said that the book of nature is written in a language of mathematics and this really turned out to be true for physics.  It was really incredibly powerful in understanding physical phenomena and for some strange reason that really nobody understands it just turned out to be not very powerful in describing biological phenomena.  In fact, we have a lot of mathematical tools now we use to understand biological phenomena in general, but we have not been successful in finding a sort of universal language and I think that our study really adds to a growing body of evidence that the language of the brain is statistics, that the brain operates at a statistical engine.  It’s not a logical engine based on reason, but a statistical engine based on evidence and if you think about it your legs couldn’t tell you Newton’s laws, but they still obey them and of course your brain might not be able to explain the laws of statistics, but it still obeys them.  

If the brain can be reduced to statistics, can it also be replicated by computers?

So I don’t believe there is any theoretical reason why our brain cannot be simulated in a computer.  The problem is right now that we have 100 billion neurons in the brain—perhaps fewer if you count some relevant ones in the neocortex—and we don’t understand how they’re connected.  We don’t understand the tricks of the architecture and we don’t fully understand what's relevant about it that we need to simulate. But what we understand already, the piecemeal is that there is nothing mysterious that needs to be added, so,, on a small scale... when we ask the question on a smaller scale, not can you simulate the brain, but can you simulate a particular process we’re getting better and better at it and better and better at accounting for how our brain functions.

Recorded August 20, 2010

Interviewed by Max Miller

"Your legs couldn’t tell you Newton’s laws, but they still obey them, and of course your brain might not be able to explain the laws of statistics, but it still obeys them."

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