Models are common; good theories are scarce

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Abstract

I like to draw a distinction between models and theories, and, although the dividing line can be fuzzy, I still think the difference is a real one. Models describe a particular phenomenon or process, and theories deal with a larger range of issues and identify general organizing principles. For example, one might make a model of some aspect of synaptic transmission and use this model to connect observations (fluorescence intensity as a function of time in an imaging experiment, for example) to some mechanistic aspect of synaptic function (such as vesicle recycling). A theory of synaptic transmission, by contrast, would have to account for many properties of synapse function, and relate these properties to principles of information processing. Such a theory might unify models of various forms of short-term plasticity (facilitation, depletion, augmentation and so on) and describe how dynamic filtering characteristics resulting from this plasticity optimize some aspect of information transfer. Models have a long history in neurobiology, from cable theory through the Hodgkin-Huxley equations, and at least some models are recognized as having been essential for the development of our subject. Theories, on the other hand, are scarce, and I cannot think of one that has made a really significant contribution to neurobiology.

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