Canonical Neurons: The Main Idea

January 28, 2013 |  by

A class of neurons—called canonical neurons—fires when we reach for an apple. Canonical neurons also fire at the mere sight of an apple. In other words, our brains respond identically to reaching for an apple and just seeing the apple.

There’s more. Neurons will also respond to hearing “apple,” or seeing the word on paper. In short, whether it’s by sight or sound or written symbol, our brains recognize the main idea of an object—and resonate with it.

The main idea of an apple? You eat it.

The main idea of a spear? You throw it.

As neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni says, “the [actions] necessary to obtain and eat a piece of fruit are inherently linked to our very understanding of the fruit.” French scientist Dan Sperber has suggested the term “concept neuron” for this mechanism.

If our brains can recognize the main idea of an apple of spear (and resonate accordingly—and automatically) why not also with bigger ideas like capitalism, socialism, Sunday brunch—or jihad?

Scientists, more research!


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