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Two views on the cognitive brain


Cognition can be defined as computation over meaningful representations in the brain to produce adaptive behaviour. There are two views on the relationship between cognition and the brain that are largely implicit in the literature. The Sherringtonian view seeks to explain cognition as the result of operations on signals performed at nodes in a network and passed between them that are implemented by specific neurons and their connections in circuits in the brain. The contrasting Hopfieldian view explains cognition as the result of transformations between or movement within representational spaces that are implemented by neural populations. Thus, the Hopfieldian view relegates details regarding the identity of and connections between specific neurons to the status of secondary explainers. Only the Hopfieldian approach has the representational and computational resources needed to develop novel neurofunctional objects that can serve as primary explainers of cognition.

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Fig. 1: Comparing and contrasting the commitments of the Sherringtonian and Hopfieldian views.
Fig. 2: Depiction of how the motion direction decision-making research programme illustrates the Sherringtonian view.
Fig. 3: Depiction of how the delayed-recall research programme illustrates the Hopfieldian view.
Fig. 4: Illustration of the revolution in Hopfieldian algorithmic approaches.


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D.L.B. and J.W.K. contributed equally to this work.

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Correspondence to David L. Barack or John W. Krakauer.

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Nature Reviews Neuroscience thanks T. Behrens, who co-reviewed with A. Baram; R. Krauzlis; and E. Miller for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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The referent of a state, what the state is about.


The set of basis elements whose combinations can describe any point in that space.

Exclusive disjunction

Either A or B but not both A and B.

Neural spaces

Conceptualizations of brain regions as N-dimensional spaces where each Nth dimension is a representation of a neuron and the value along the dimension is the firing rate of that neuron.


Early artificial neural network models.


An early idea about the brain’s biological organization that maintained the brain is a continuous network not divisible into cells.

Semantic representations

Representations that have semantic content and can be mapped on to the content given some context of use.


A point or a region of neural space.


An orderly arrangement of the representation of auditory tones in the brain from lowest to highest.

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Barack, D.L., Krakauer, J.W. Two views on the cognitive brain. Nat Rev Neurosci 22, 359–371 (2021).

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