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Conceptual Analysis ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Neurosci. | doi: 10.3389/fnins.2019.01121

The Value of Failure in Science: The Story of Grandmother Cells in Neuroscience

  • 1Indiana University, United States

The annals of science are filled with successes. In footnotes do we hear about the failures, the cul-de-sacs, and the forgotten ideas. Failure is how research advances. Yet it hardly features in theoretical perspectives on science. That is a mistake. Failures, whether clear-cut or ambiguous, are heuristically fruitful in their own right. Thinking about failure questions our measures of success, including the conceptual foundations of current practice, that can only be transient in an experimental context. This article advances the heuristics of failure analysis, meaning the explicit treatment of certain ideas or models as failures. The value of failures qua being a failure is illustrated with the example of grandmother cells; the contested idea of a hypothetical neuron that encodes a highly specific but complex stimulus, such as the image of one’s grandmother. Repeatedly evoked in popular science and maintained in textbooks, there is sufficient reason to critically review the theoretical and empirical background of this idea.

Keywords: Philosphy of science, grandmother cells, Gnostic units, Model pluralism, object recogntion, History of Science, localization, Sparse Coding, Localist theory

Received: 06 Jul 2019; Accepted: 04 Oct 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Barwich. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Prof. Ann-Sophie Barwich, Indiana University, Bloomington, United States, as.barwich@gmail.com