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Physics of psychophysics: optimal dynamic range of critical excitable networks

A recurrent idea in the study of complex systems is that optimal information processing is to be found near phase transitions [13]. However, this heuristic hypothesis has few (if any) concrete realizations where a standard and biologically relevant quantity is optimized at criticality. Here we give a clear example of such phenomenon: a network of excitable elements has its sensitivity and dynamic range maximized at the critical point of a nonequilibrium phase transition. Our results are compatible with the essential role of gap junctions in olfactory glomeruli and retinal ganglion cell output. Synchronization and global oscillations also emerge from the network dynamics. We propose that the main functional role of electrical coupling is to provide an enhancement of dynamic range, therefore allowing the coding of information spanning several orders of magnitude. The mechanism provides a microscopic neural basis for psychophysical laws.


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Correspondence to Mauro Copelli.

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Open Access This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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Copelli, M., Kinouchi, O. Physics of psychophysics: optimal dynamic range of critical excitable networks. BMC Neurosci 8 (Suppl 2), P174 (2007).

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