Wiring. That’s one answer to this question. We know this from topographic maps in the thalamus and neocortex, where the basic units of sensory information are neatly represented in spatially-arranged populations of neurons – the various body parts are represented in specific locations, as are the different frequencies of sound, the different parts of the retina, and different odors and tastes. This basic sensory information has to be represented (i.e. we all need a faithful representation of visual elements, we all need to hear the various frequencies of sound that make up human speech etc.) so why not hard-wire it and make its representation the same for all of us?
It’s often thought that things change as you move into parts of the brain that represent more complex and abstract concepts. For example, in the hippocampus, many neurons receive the same inputs so it’s generally assumed that different neurons are equally capable of representing a given piece of information. While wiring between neurons must play a role in determining which neurons are activated, the diffuseness of the wiring means that related information need not be stored in spatially neighboring neurons as in the sensory regions of neocortex. Indeed, if you look at hippocampal neurons activated by a given experience they don’t appear to have any particular spatial arrangement but are randomly distributed, anatomically. Alternatively, it could be that certain hippocampal neurons are hard-wired to respond to specific stimuli, it’s just that we don’t understand the wiring. Continue reading How does the brain pick which neurons to use?