Valentino Braitenberg

Italian-Austrian neuroscientist

Valentino Braitenberg (June 18, 1926September 9, 2011) was an Italian neuroscientist and cyberneticist, best known for the 1984 book Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology.


  • A structure made up of fine threads, so many and so fine that even the strongest magnification of the microscope was hardly sufficient to allow all of them to be seen clearly. Some of the threads ran together in bundles and in layers in specific directions; others lay seemingly randomly distributed every which way through the tissue. Embedded in this felted mass of fibers, it was possible to discern spherical structures, the nuclei of the nerve cells...
    • Braitenberg (1948), quoted in: Elke Maier (2012) "Spying on God" in Max Planck Research, March 2012
    • Description of Braitenberg's first experience observing brain tissue under a microscope as medical student in Rome.
  • The brain is encased in the head, the part of the body which in most walking, flying or swimming animals is the leading end of the moving body (with few exceptions: starfish, cuttlefish, humans, penguins when they are not swimming). The obvious risks which this localization entails are apparently compensated by the advantage of direct short connections with the sense organs localized in or on top of the head (olfaction, taste, vision, audition, vestibular sense), which together with the brain could be seen as something like the cockpit of the animal, or the pilot if one prefers.
    • Valentino Braitenberg (2007) "Brain". Scholarpedia, 2(11):2918.
  • Ad Aertsen succeeds in allowing his sense of humour to shine through the deep seriousness of his scientific ethos. He also has a very balanced attitude to the question of "theory or experiment".
  • Imagine the inside of St. Peter’s in Rome filled with a huge quantity of fibers around a millimeter in diameter that crisscross the building in every direction creating a firm mat – then you have an idea of what the brain looks like when magnified a thousand times.
    • Braitenberg, quoted in: Elke Maier (2012) "Spying on God" in Max Planck Research, March 2012

Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology (1984)Edit

Valentino Braitenberg (1984) Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology. MIT Press
  • This is an exercise in fictional science, or science fiction, if you like that better. Not for amusement: science fiction in the service of science. Or just science, if you agree that fiction is a part of it, always was, and always will be as long as our brains are only miniscule fragments of the universe, much too small to hold all the facts of the world but not too idle to speculate about them.
    • p. 1
  • We will talk only about machines with very simple internal structures, too simple in fact to be interesting from the point of view of mechanical or electrical engineering. Interest arises, rather, when we look at these machines or vehicles as if they were animals, in a natural environment. We will be tempted, then, to use psychological language in describing their behavior. And yet we know very well that there is nothing in these vehicles that we have not put there ourselves.
    • p 2
  • It is actually impossible in theory to determine exactly what the hidden mechanism is without opening the box, since there are always many different mechanisms with identical behavior. Quite apart from this, analysis is more difficult than invention in the sense in which, generally, induction takes more time to perform than deduction: in induction one has to search for the way, whereas in deduction one follows a straightforward path.
    • p. 20 as cited in: Yll Haxhimusa (2006) The Structurally Optimal Dual Graph Pyramid and Its Application in Image Partitioning. p. 149
  • A psychological consequence of this is the following: when we analyze a mechanism we tend to over estimate its complexity.
    • p. 20
  • You may regret this, but you will soon notice that is a good idea to give chance a chance in the further creation of new brands of vehicles. This will make available a source of intelligence that is much more powerful than any engineering mind.
    • p. 26
  • We must be careful, however, not to let the process of acquiring new ideas interfere with the detailed knowledge that our vehicle has assiduously collected and carefully stored in many associative connections during its lifetime. We know that this may happen in humans who are overly dedicated to the development of ideas. They tend to connect many individual cases into general categories ad then use the categories as if they were things, losing the potential for categorizing in other ways by remembering each instance.
  • [The final chapter of the book] sketch a few facts about animal brains that have inspired some of the properties of our vehicles, and their behavior will then seem less gratuitous than it may have seemed up to this poin.t
    • p. 95 as cited in: Michael R. W. Dawson (2008) Minds and Machines: Connectionism and Psychological Modeling. p. 88
  • Not it is different with type 14 vehicles. They move through their world with consistent determination, always clearly after something that very often we cannot guess at the outset - something that may not even be there when the vehicle reaches the place it wants to get to. But it seems to be a good strategy, this running after a dream. Most of the time the chain of optimistic predicitions that seems to guide the vehicles's behaviour proves to be correct, and Vehicle 14 achieves goals that Vehicle 13 and its predecessors "couldn't not even dream of." The point is that while the vehicle goes through its optimistic predicitions, the succession of internal states implies movements and actions of the vehicle itself. While dreaming and sleepwalking, the vehicle transforms the world (and its own position in the world) in such a way that ultimately the state of the world is a more favorable one.

Quotes about BraitenbergEdit

  • In Vehicles, Valentino Braitenberg (1984) proposed a series of 14 different thought experiments. Each of these experiments involved conceptualizing a fairly simple machine, and considering how that machine might behave in different environments. Some of these machines are reminiscent of Elmer and Elsie. As Braitenberg's book progresses, the hypothetical machines become more sophisticated, as does their consequent behavior.
    • Michael R. W. Dawson (2008) Minds and Machines: Connectionism and Psychological Modeling. p. 88
  • His life’s work and his extraordinary personality were inextricably interwoven... The focus of his research was the functional interpretation of brain structures. When electronic computers emerged in the 1950s, it was clear to Braitenberg that they presented conceptual models for brain function. Thus, his neuroanatomical studies aimed at identifying the typical network structure of individual brain areas.

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