Chapter 10: Processes of Perception and Analysis

Section 7: Visual Perception

Nerve cells

In the retina and the brain, nerve cells typically have an irregular tree-like structure, with between a few and a few thousand dendrites carrying input signals, and one or more axons carrying output signals. Nerve cells can respond on timescales of order milliseconds to changes in their inputs by changing their rate of generating output electrical spikes. As has been believed since the 1940s, most often nerve cells seem to operate at least roughly by effectively adding up their inputs with various positive or negative weights, then going into an excited state if the result exceeds some threshold. The weights seem to be determined by detailed properties of the synapses between nerve cells. Their values can presumably change to reflect certain aspects of the activity of the cell, thus forming a basis for memory (see page 1102). In organisms with a total of only a few thousand nerve cells, each individual cell typically has definite connections and a definite function. But in humans with perhaps 100 billion nerve cells, the physical connections seem quite haphazard, and most nerve cells probably develop their function as a result of building up weights associated with their actual pattern of behavior, either spontaneous or in response to external stimuli.

From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]