The omnipotency of binding

 In book, book review, cognitive science, memory, modularity, neuroscience

figure1.jpgIs binding the single most important concept in neuroscience? I think it is, even without making the concept too general or vague. On the contrary, binding seems to be a general concept to understand the workings of the brain. No more need for modules of perception, cognition, memory and action. Binding is the solution.

More specifically, what is binding? Or, to reframe the question 100%: what happens when the brain works? To many, the brain binds information together at all levels throughout the brain. If you perceive an object, that particular object is a mixture between colour, form, position, movement etc., that is bound together. Because of you look at the early sensory processes in the brain, we know that the features of an object are treated by separate processes in the brain. Accordingly, they can be lesioned separately, leading to e.g. acquired colour blindless but with intact movement perception.

Later in the processing stream we find that lesions to e.g. the fusiform gyrus leads to agnosia, where patients lack the ability to recognize objects, despite being able to recognize their indidual features. Here, one could say, we have an example of a binding mechanism gone awry. People with this problem cannot bind the relevant information together, because the biological wetware subserving it is damaged.

What, then, about memory? Memory is, as you (should) know, a mongrel concept. It covers a lot of different processes and types of memories. There is, for example, a general distinction between declarative and non-declarative memory. In declarative memory, the prime example being episodic memory, discrete events are coupled together into a scene and with a temporal frame (i.e. a storyline). As we remember such events, they are situated in both a spatial and temporal setting. This kind of memory is thus yet another example of how binding is a prerequisite for proper neurocognitive functioning.

Indeed, it seems that binding is a core function, or even lingua franca, of brain function. I have previously mentioned the release of the Handbook of binding and memory, from Oxford University Press. This book indeed taps into this very discussion, presenting nice overviews from different parts of the cognitive apparatus where the concept of binding is essential and influential. Although I have not read the entire book yet, I will already go as far as to recommend the book as a whole. The mere treatment of binding as a single topic is probably one of the most important this year. It’s a must-buy, must-read, and must-have-on-the-shelf. Go get it!


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