Warren Sturgis McCulloch

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Warren Sturgis McCulloch
Born (1898-11-16)16 November 1898
Orange, New Jersey, United States
Died 24 September 1969(1969-09-24) (aged 70)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Nationality American
Citizenship United States
Alma mater Yale University
Columbia University
Known for Heterarchy
Awards Wiener Gold Medal (1968)
Scientific career
Fields Cybernetics
Artificial neural network
Computer Science
Institutions Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Yale University
University of Illinois at Chicago
University of Chicago
Notable students Stafford Beer

Warren Sturgis McCulloch (November 16, 1898 – September 24, 1969) was an American neurophysiologist and cybernetician, known for his work on the foundation for certain brain theories and his contribution to the cybernetics movement.[1] Along with Walter Pitts, McCulloch created computational models based on mathematical algorithms called threshold logic which split the inquiry into two distinct approaches, one approach focused on biological processes in the brain and the other focused on the application of neural networks to artificial intelligence.[2]


Warren Sturgis McCulloch was born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1898. He attended Haverford College and studied philosophy and psychology at Yale University, where he received an A.B. degree in 1921. He continued to study psychology at Columbia and received a M.A. degree in 1923. Receiving his MD in 1927 from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, he undertook an internship at Bellevue Hospital, New York, before returning to academia in 1934. He worked at the Laboratory for Neurophysiology at Yale University from 1934 to 1941, before moving to the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

From 1952 he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Norbert Wiener. He also worked at Yale University and later at the University of Chicago. He was a founding member of the American Society for Cybernetics and its second president during 1967–1968. He was a mentor to the British operations research pioneer Stafford Beer.

McCulloch had a range of interests and talents. In addition to his scientific contributions he wrote poetry (sonnets), and he designed and engineered buildings and a dam at his farm in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

McCulloch married Ruth Metzger, known as 'Rook', in 1924 and they had three children.[3] He died in Cambridge in 1969.


He is remembered for his work with Joannes Gregorius Dusser de Barenne from Yale [4] and later with Walter Pitts from the University of Chicago. Here he provided the foundation for certain brain theories in a number of classic papers, including "A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity" (1943) and "How We Know Universals: The Perception of Auditory and Visual Forms" (1947), both published in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics. The former is "widely credited with being a seminal contribution to neural network theory, the theory of automata, the theory of computation, and cybernetics".[1]

Neural network modelling

In the 1943 paper they attempted to demonstrate that a Turing machine program could be implemented in a finite network of formal neurons (in the event, the Turing Machine contains their model of the brain, but the converse is not true[5]), that the neuron was the base logic unit of the brain. In the 1947 paper they offered approaches to designing "nervous nets" to recognize visual inputs despite changes in orientation or size.

From 1952 he worked at the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, working primarily on neural network modelling. His team examined the visual system of the frog in consideration of McCulloch's 1947 paper, discovering that the eye provides the brain with information that is already, to a degree, organized and interpreted, instead of simply transmitting an image.

Reticular formation

McCulloch also posited the concept of "poker chip" reticular formations as to how the brain deals with contradictory information in a democratic, somatotopical neural network. His principle of "Redundancy of Potential Command"[6] was developed by von Foerster and Pask in their study of self-organization[7] and by Pask in his Conversation Theory and Interactions of Actors Theory.[8]


McCulloch wrote a book and several articles:[9]

  • 1965, Embodiments of Mind. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • 1993, The Complete Works of Warren S. McCulloch. Intersystems Publications: Salinas, CA.

Articles, a selection:

  • 1943, "A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity". With Walter Pitts. In: Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics Vol 5, pp 115–133.
  • 1945, "A Heterarchy of Values Determined by the Topology of Nervous Nets". In: Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics, 7, 1945, 89–93.
  • 1959, "What The Frog's Eye Tells The Frog's Brain". With Jerome Lettvin, H.R. Maturana and W.H. Pitts [It is widely known[weasel words] that the actual authors of this work were only Lettvin and Maturana.] In: Proc. of the I. R. E. Vol 47 (11).
  • 1969, "Recollections of the Many Sources of Cybernetics", published in: ASC FORUM Volume VI, Number 2 -Summer 1974.

Papers published by the Chicago Literary Club:

  • 1945, "One Word After Another".
  • 1959, "The Past of a Delusion".
  • 1959, "The Natural Fit".

See also


  1. ^ a b Ken Aizawa (2004), "McCulloch, Warren Sturgis". In: Dictionary of the Philosophy of Mind. Retrieved May 17, 2008.
  2. ^ McCulloch, Warren; Walter Pitts (1943). "A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity". Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics. 5 (4): 115–133. doi:10.1007/BF02478259.
  3. ^ H., Abraham, Tara. Rebel genius : Warren S. McCulloch's transdisciplinary life in science. Cambridge, Massachusetts. ISBN 9780262035095. OCLC 946160418.
  4. ^ "Joannes Gregorius Dusser de Barenne". Yale J Biol Med. 12 (6): 742.2–746. PMC 2602446.
  5. ^ see: S.C. Kleene, "Representations of Events in Nerve Nets and Finite Automata"
  6. ^ Some Mechanisms For A Theory of the Reticular Formation
  7. ^ "A Predictive Model for Self-Organizing Systems", Part I: Cybernetica 3, pp. 258–300; Part II: Cybernetica 4, pp. 20–55, 1961 Heinz von Foerster and Gordon Pask
  8. ^ Gordon Pask (1996). Heinz von Foerster's Self-Organisation, the Progenitor of Conversation and Interaction Theories
  9. ^ His papers now reside in the manuscripts collection of the American Philosophical Society.

Further reading

  • Rebel Genius: Warren S. McCulloch's Transdisciplinary Life in Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).
  • New York Times (1969), Obituaries, September 25.
  • Crevier, Daniel (1993), AI: The Tumultuous Search for Artificial Intelligence, BasicBooks, New York, NY.
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