Capturing Human Cognitive Abilities With Deep Neural Networks

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Emulating human thought and mimicking brains with deep neural networks — what can we learn from our patterns of behavior?

Deep neural networks, an area of artificial intelligence designed to emulate human cognitive abilities, remain a topic of lively discussion within the scientific community.

These networks rely heavily on rigorous training with labeled data and specific architectural designs. But the question arises whether neural networks can really think like humans.

At the heart of human cognitive abilities are neurons, the fundamental cells of the brain, and deep neural networks attempt to replicate the role of neurons in information processing.

However, a critical difference emerges when we examine the underlying mechanisms. Unlike the human brain, AI relies on predetermined parameters, which learn and adapt continuously. This crucial distinction highlights a limitation in how deep neural networks handle unfamiliar and adverse scenarios.

Bridging AI and Human Intelligence

Much like training a toddler, teaching a computer to recognize patterns involves continuous exposure and data input. Imagine the process of instructing a machine to identify a dog.

We repeatedly provide it with audio, video, and images of dogs, explaining the main characteristics, such as barking sounds, wagging tails, and teeth.


Over time, the computer learns to logically associate different parts of the dataset, forming insights about what constitutes a dog and what does not. While this process might seem simple and intuitive, developing these associations takes time and exposure.

READ MORE: What Are Parameters in AI?

While capable of recognizing objects and words like humans, deep neural networks don’t see the world in the same way we do. When tasked with generating images or words categorized similarly to specific inputs, such as a picture of a bear, these networks produce outputs that are often unrecognizable to human observers. This divergence arises from the development of unique invariances within the models. 

While the human sensory system can recognize commonalities among objects despite variations, deep neural networks seem to form their idiosyncratic invariances. These invariances cause the networks to perceive distinct stimuli as identical, even when these stimuli appear radically different to human observers. 

The disparity between how deep neural networks and humans perceive the world underscores the complexity and idiosyncrasies of these computational models’ representations, challenging researchers to evaluate their mimicry of human sensory perception more thoroughly.

Limitations of Deep Neural Networks

Despite the substantial progress in deep neural networks, they still fail to replicate the human brain’s complexity. One significant challenge lies in the resources required.

Unlike the human brain, which learns continuously without specific implementations, neural networks need explicit resources. 

Last year, an MIT study highlighted the need for caution when interpreting neural network models in the context of neuroscience. The study examined over 11,000 neural networks trained to simulate the function of grid cells in the brain’s navigation system.


It discovered that neural networks produced grid-cell-like activity only when specific constraints, inconsistent with biological systems, were imposed during training. This suggests that these constraints may have influenced earlier studies claiming that grid-cell-like representations naturally emerge in any neural network trained for path integration. 

The findings emphasize the importance of considering biological constraints when using deep learning models to predict how the brain works. Researchers are now working on models of grid cells that incorporate more accurate physical constraints to yield brain-like solutions.

Another critical difference between deep neural networks and the human brain is how they handle new information. Neural networks tend to overwrite existing data, a phenomenon known as catastrophic forgetting.

This behavior can hinder their ability to remember and associate complex information effectively. Finding a solution to mitigate catastrophic forgetting is crucial to enhancing the capabilities of these networks.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

The human brain’s ability to continuously learn and consolidate information during sleep is at odds with AI neural networks’ current continuous learning approach. But Maxim Bazhenov, a professor of medicine and a sleep researcher, advocates for emulating the human brain’s information processing during sleep cycles in AI development. 

Bazhenov suggests integrating artificial sleep cycles into deep neural networks to enhance their effectiveness and mitigate catastrophic forgetting, which hampers AI’s memory and association capabilities. This approach becomes critical when addressing potential mix-ups, such as confusing features of different dog breeds, highlighting the need to refine deep neural networks.

Research suggests that artificial neural networks can significantly improve their learning capabilities by incorporating simulated “sleep” periods, akin to how humans and animals consolidate memories during rest.

Spiking neural networks, mimicking natural neural systems, were trained on new tasks with intermittent “sleep” breaks, resulting in reduced catastrophic forgetting. These AI systems leveraged “sleep” to reorganize and replay memories without explicitly relying on previous training data. 

This offers a compelling avenue for AI to emulate the continuous learning and memory consolidation processes observed in the human brain, potentially bridging the gap between artificial and biological intelligence.

The Challenge of Individuality

The path to achieving this level of sophistication is marred by the uniqueness of each human brain, presenting a formidable obstacle.

While deep neural networks aspire to replicate the fundamental tenets of human cognition, each human mind’s intricate individuality and complexity stand as an unparalleled challenge. This distinctiveness adds a layer of intricacy to attaining genuine equivalence with human cognitive faculties. 

Despite these considerable challenges and inherent limitations, there is undeniable progress in deep neural networks.

Researchers are actively exploring innovative avenues, which include the integration of artificial sleep cycles and the formulation of more biologically plausible constraints. These pioneering efforts promise to narrow the gap between artificial intelligence and human cognition, marking a path forward where exciting possibilities continue to emerge.

While potential updates, such as incorporating sleep cycles, may bring deep neural networks closer to human brains, the intrinsic differences in design and operation pose a significant gap that remains challenging to bridge. The uniqueness of each human brain presents a formidable obstacle for deep neural networks to replicate successfully. 

As we navigate the intricate path toward capturing human cognitive abilities with deep neural networks, we stand at the crossroads of boundless potential and formidable challenges.

The pursuit of creating machines capable of emulating human cognition naturally sparks contemplation regarding the existence of a definitive endpoint. Yet, the essence of human curiosity, coupled with the intricate mysteries of our world, suggests a different narrative.

The Bottom Line

Much like our ever-expanding comprehension of the universe, the journey to develop more intelligent, capable, and ethically responsible neural networks may be an endless odyssey. The convergence of deep neural networks and human cognition paints a horizon teeming with thrilling possibilities for artificial intelligence and cognitive science. 

In this ever-evolving quest to bring the concept of HAL 9000 to life, the pursuit of replicating human cognition through deep neural networks reminds us that maybe the journey itself is the destination.


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Kaushik Pal
Technology writer
Kaushik Pal
Technology writer

Kaushik is a technical architect and software consultant with over 23 years of experience in software analysis, development, architecture, design, testing and training. He has an interest in new technologies and areas of innovation. He focuses on web architecture, web technologies, Java/J2EE, open source software, WebRTC, big data and semantic technologies. He has demonstrated expertise in requirements analysis, architectural design and implementation, technical use cases and software development. His experience has covered various industries such as insurance, banking, airlines, shipping, document management and product development, etc. He has worked on a wide range of technologies ranging from large scale (IBM…