Symbols and Dynamics in the Brain

Peter Cariani
Eaton Peabody Laboratory for Auditory Physiology
Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary
243 Charles St.
Boston, MA 02114 USA

Cariani, P. [2001]. "Symbols and dynamics in the brain".Biosystems. Vol 60, pp. 59-83.

This paper is available here in Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) format. It is also available from Elsevier's web site.

Abstract: The work of physicist and theoretical biologist Howard Pattee has focused on the roles that symbols and dynamics play in biological systems. Symbols, as discrete functional switching-states, are seen at the heart of all biological systems in form of genetic codes, and at the core of all neural systems in the form of informational mechanisms that switch behavior. They also appear in one form or another in all epistemic systems, from informational processes embedded in primitive organisms to individual human beings to public scientific models. Over its course, Pattee's work has explored 1) the physical basis of informational functions (dynamical vs. rule-based descriptions, switching mechanisms, memory, symbols), 2) the functional organization of the observer (measurement, computation), 3) the means by which information can be embedded in biological organisms for purposes of self-construction and representation (as codes, modeling relations, memory, symbols), and 4) the processes by which new structures and functions can emerge over time. We discuss how these concepts can be applied to a high-level understanding of the brain. Biological organisms constantly reproduce themselves as well as their relations with their environs. The brain similarly can be seen as a self-producing, self-regenerating neural signaling system and as an adaptive informational system that interacts with its surrounds in order to steer behavior.

Keywords: Symbols, dynamical systems, neurocomputation, emergence, self-organization, adaptive systems, epistemology, biological cybernetics, genetic code, neural code, biological semiotics, evolutionary robotics