Thinking in circuits: toward neurobiological explanation in cognitive neuroscience

Pulvermüller, F.; Garagnani, M. and Wennekers, T.. 2014. Thinking in circuits: toward neurobiological explanation in cognitive neuroscience. Biological Cybernetics, 108(5), pp. 573-593. ISSN 0340-1200 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Cognitive theory has decomposed human mental abilities into cognitive (sub) systems, and cognitive neuroscience succeeded in disclosing a host of relationships between cognitive systems and specific structures of the human brain. However, an explanation of why specific functions are located in specific brain loci had still been missing, along with a neurobiological model that makes concrete the neuronal circuits that carry thoughts and meaning. Brain theory, in particular the Hebb-inspired neurocybernetic proposals by Braitenberg, now offers an avenue toward explaining brain–mind relationships and to spell out cognition in terms of neuron circuits in a neuromechanistic sense. Central to this endeavor is the theoretical construct of an elementary functional neuronal unit above the level of individual neurons and below that of whole brain areas and systems: the distributed neuronal assembly (DNA) or thought circuit (TC). It is shown that DNA/TC theory of cognition offers an integrated explanatory perspective on brain mechanisms of perception, action, language, attention, memory, decision and conceptual thought. We argue that DNAs carry all of these functions and that their inner structure (e.g., core and halo subcomponents), and their functional activation dynamics (e.g., ignition and reverberation processes) answer crucial localist questions, such as why memory and decisions draw on prefrontal areas although memory formation is normally driven by information in the senses and in the motor system. We suggest that the ability of building DNAs/TCs spread out over different cortical areas is the key mechanism for a range of specifically human sensorimotor, linguistic and conceptual capacities and that the cell assembly mechanism of overlap reduction is crucial for differentiating a vocabulary of actions, symbols and concepts.

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Supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Excellence Cluster LoE, Pu 97/15, Pu 97/16), the Freie Universität Berlin, and the Medical Research Council (MC_US_A060_0034060_0034, U1055.04.003.00001.01), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Behavioural and Brain Sciences Research Council (BABEL grant, EP/J004561/1).


Action perception circuit, Cell assembly, Concept, Mirror neuron, Memory cell, Meaning, Semantic category, Semantics

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28 March 2014Accepted
18 June 2014Published Online
October 2014Published

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03 Jan 2017 15:45

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:21

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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