The Value of Failure in Science: The Story of Grandmother Cells in Neuroscience

The annals of science are filled with successes. Only in footnotes do we hear about the failures, the cul-de-sacs, and the forgotten ideas. Failure is how research advances. Yet it hardly features in theoretical perspectives on science. That is a mistake. Failures, whether clear-cut or ambiguous, are heuristically fruitful in their own right. Thinking about failure questions our measures of success, including the conceptual foundations of current practice, that can only be transient in an experimental context. This article advances the heuristics of failure analysis, meaning the explicit treatment of certain ideas or models as failures. The value of failures qua being a failure is illustrated with the example of grandmother cells; the contested idea of a hypothetical neuron that encodes a highly specific but complex stimulus, such as the image of one’s grandmother. Repeatedly evoked in popular science and maintained in textbooks, there is sufficient reason to critically review the theoretical and empirical background of this idea.



About Giorgio Bertini

Research Professor. Founder Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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