Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Konrad P. Kording


Computational neuroscience is in the midst of constructing a new framework for understanding the brain based on the ideas and methods of machine learning. This is effort has been encouraged, in part, by recent advances in neural network models. It is also driven by a recognition of the complexity of neural computation and the challenges that this poses for neuroscience’s methods. In this dissertation, I first work to describe these problems of complexity that have prompted a shift in focus. In particular, I develop machine learning tools for neurophysiology that help test whether tuning curves and other statistical models in fact capture the meaning of neural activity. Then, taking up a machine learning framework for understanding, I consider theories about how neural computation emerges from experience. Specifically, I develop hypotheses about the potential learning objectives of sensory plasticity, the potential learning algorithms in the brain, and finally the consequences for sensory representations of learning with such algorithms. These hypotheses pull from advances in several areas of machine learning, including optimization, representation learning, and deep learning theory. Each of these subfields has insights for neuroscience, offering up links for a chain of knowledge about how we learn and think. Together, this dissertation helps to further an understanding of the brain in the lens of machine learning.

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