Surprised by a dying cat

Here’s another classic.  Even better, here’s David Hubel’s Nobel lecture from 1981, in which he explains the happy accident that led to their discovery.

Hubel and his partner had connected a microelectrode to a particular neuron in a cat’s visual cortex.  They were trying to get the neuron to fire reliably in response to visual stimulation (a black dot).  But nothing worked.  And then all of a sudden, it started firing like crazy.  Turns out this particular neuron was “turned on” by the shadow of the glass slide as it was inserted into their projector – a sharp black line moving across a light background.  What’s more, it would only fire when the black line was at certain orientations.  It had no interest in a black dot at all.

This was one of the first papers to show that some neurons in our cortex (our upper brain) are very specifically tuned to a very narrow set of stimuli.  And it spawned a huge course of “single unit” studies in which psychologists test individual neurons throughout the brain to see which environmental conditions will make them fire.  Still a huge part of brain research.

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