Max Bennett: An Attempt to Model The Neocortical Microcircuit in Sensory Neocortex - Sept 9, 2020


This week, we invited Max Bennett to discuss his recently published model of cortical columns, sequences with precise time scales, and working memory. His work builds on and extends our past work in several interesting directions. Max explains his unusual background, and then discusses the key elements of his paper.
Link to his paper:
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This is a long article and I think it would greatly benefit if it were more focused on a single or few aspects of the brain, instead of proposing a grand theory.

I think it is a mistake to focus on delayed input tasks. These tasks are challenging and performing them involves many brain regions and many different mechanisms. This means they are not great for studying an individual phenomena in isolation.

This article proposes a hypothesis for how the neocortex learns viewpoint invariant representations (“unique sequence codes”). A projection from the hippocampus to cortical layer 5 will hold a set of layer 5 cells active throughout the duration of a sequence, and Hebbian plasticity will cause those active cells to associate with all of the elements in the sequence. There are several issues with this hypothesis:

  1. This does not actually solve the problem of viewpoint invariance, rather it moves the challenge from the cortex to the hippocampus. How does the hippocampus know when to hold the cortical activity constant versus allowing it to change?
  2. Sequence learning (viewpoint invariance) is a critical function of the cortex, and you’re proposing that it happens far away in a smaller brain region. This seems like an information bottleneck. There are many cortical regions, all operating independently and in parallel, but there is only one hippocampus.

I have a competing hypothesis for how the neocortex learns viewpoint invariant representations. I have described it in this video: Video Lecture of Kropff & Treves, 2008

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I think that this is a mayor problem for the proposal, too.

Nevertheless, HC is playing a mayor role in the learning process. You might be unable to reach a practical system without it. In fact, I think that BG/Thal and other subcortical structures/HC are required to “digest” any complex sensory flow.

You can’t have a “practical” hierarchy without them. Perhaps this model is not the right approach to it, but you can’t ignore them. It’s all or nothing system.

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I don’t know if Max is watching the forum, but I would be more than happy to work with him on developing simulations to test out his ideas.

I’ve done a variety of simple code sketches to teach myself the basic SP/TM algorithms and to visualize the evolution of the resulting networks. I feel like I’m ready to start working on a more detailed C++ implementation, but I think I’ve been waiting for the right motivation and/or collaborator to come along. It sounds like we both have about the same amount of free time to spend on the project, so maybe it would be a good collaboration.

Max; Feel free to reach out if you’re interested.

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@dmac I’m confused by how you are drawing an equivalence between the process of “viewpoint invariance” and “sequence learning” - I don’t see these as the same. The idea of generating “unique sequence codes” wasn’t intended to explain viewpoint invariance, only how a column learns from a stream of sensory input and predicts what the next input is likely to be, without accounting for variations in viewpoint, orientation, scale, etc.

The proposal is that the hippocampus has to perform nothing more than replaying a single “episode code” to enable the neocortex to maintain, replay, and learn any arbitrary sequence. Hence sequence learning does not occur in the hippocampus, but the hippocampus is required for the neocortex to learn sequences (consistent with lesion studies). So I’m curious where you see an information bottleneck?

There are two possible ways (in the context of this model) that sequences/representations can be reset (what you are referring to as holding cortical activity constant versus allowing it to change). The first way is triggered by a failed prediction or “surprise”, whereby multiareal matrix cells in the thalamus reset representations in the cortical columns that generated the failed predictions - the connectivity of the thalamus is consistent with the idea that matrix neurons fire only in the presence of failed predictions (surprise). Recording studies are also consistent with this. The second way, is that the hippocampus can learn transitions in these episode codes - playing sequences of episode/place codes in CA1 is a well documented phenomena - and hence if the hippocampus learns to shift episode codes given cues from its input from the cortex, then representations can shift in the neocortex. Note that this is not the same as saying the hippocampus performs all sequence learning.

None of this solves viewpoint invariance, which I agree is an essential part of processing in the neocortex. I briefly suggested a few ways this may happen, but it wasn’t a core focus.

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Sorry for the delay @CollinsEM! I just realized this forum even exists haha. Yeah would be happy to chat! Shoot me an email at maxbennett@gmail.com :slight_smile:

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Welcome to the forum, @Max_Bennett.

I was very impressed by your presentation. Fascinating ideas. And also happy to see you in other Numenta research meetings. I hope you’ll continue to work together for a long and succesful cooperation.

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Thanks @Falco! Appreciate it :slight_smile: I am very excited and humbled to be included.

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Hello Max Bennet,

I took another look your article and I think I understand it better. I don’t think that I really understood the parts about the hippocampus when I first read it.

These “episode codes” are a very interesting way to think about the hippocampus and what purpose it serves! It seems like the episode code represents the entire state of the world of an animal, as a small identifier.

  • It uniquely identifies the current time, location, and emotional state.
  • It does not contain specific information about the current state, that is distributed throughout the neocortex. The episode codes can be used to access the associated information in the neocortex.
  • The hippocampus, which generates the episode codes, is similar to the cortex and can probably manipulate episode codes in many of the same ways that the neocortex manipulates information.
  • You’re right, there is no information bottleneck.
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@dmac Yes exactly! This idea also aligns nicely with the general hypothesis that the hippocampus operates as a “pointer” to memories in the neocortex - but takes it a step further to explain how the pointer mapping is learned and how it can be used for working memory/sequence learning.

Viewpoint invariance is still a huge missing piece though and a very important problem to solve - there are massive commercial/practical applications of solving it. State of the art neural networks still substantially underperform humans in this regard. I’m excited to watch your lecture you linked above :slight_smile:

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I just came across the “hippocampal memory indexing theory” which I think proposes a similar thing, but I haven’t yet read through the whole article.

Teyler and Rudy, 2007 http://people.whitman.edu/~herbrawt/hippocampus.pdf