The elephant-nosed electric fish

The elephant-nosed electric fish

By Olivia Zhu

Larry Abbott argues that sensation is not perception. In a lecture presented on March 25th to the Department of Neurobiology at Duke, Dr. Abbott, of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University, presented his model of integrated perception.

Dr. Abbott went into particular depth about how an organism can tell itself apart from its surroundings. Though we may take it for granted, self-identification is extremely important in many instances: for example, when a young, male zebra finch learns how to sing by copying his tutor, he must be able to distinguish his own song from other birds’ songs in order to properly listen to it and refine it.

Dr. Abbott studies self-perception in elephant-nosed electric fish. Electric fish have an organ in their body that sends out strong electric pulses. However, the fish also have a sensory organ to detect electric pulses from potential prey, which are several orders of magnitude lower than their own signals. Their own electric fields should diminish their sensitivity to external electricity; this interference, though, is prevented because their electricity-generating organ sends impulses to the sensory organ to inform it when it is firing. Essentially, the fishes’ neural circuits are tuned to cancel out the input they receive from their own electric pulses.

Ultimately, Dr. Abbott claimed that when you look at your friend, you’re not exactly seeing your friend: your mental image is a product of various mental manipulations of the original sensory input your brain receives. His mathematical, model-based approach attempts to redefine the way in which we view ourselves and our relation to the world.