# What is a McCulloch-Pitts neuron?

In their 1943 paper, *A logical calculus of the ideas immanent in nervous activity*,
Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts proposed
a mathematical model of the behavior of neurons.
But the notation is dated.
Here I show the model in JavaScript.
For the impatient,
here’s the model that I’ll explain:

```
const makeNeuron = options => inputs => {
for (i of options.inhibitory)
if (inputs[i] === 1)
return 0;
let sum = 0;
for (i of options.excitatory)
sum += inputs[i];
return sum >= options.threshold ? 1 : 0;
}
```

The McCulloch-Pitts neuron
(also called the M-P neuron,
or the “Threshold Logic Unit”)
is modelled as a pure function
with many inputs and one output.
All inputs and outputs are either `0`

or `1`

.
Here’s an example neuron in action:

```
> mystery([0,1])
0
> mystery([1,1])
1
```

McCulloch-Pitts neurons can have many inputs,
but this one has just two.
Depending on those inputs,
it outputs either `0`

or `1`

.
In other words, it’s a logical binary operator.
We can find out which operator it is
by trying all the inputs:

```
> mystery([1,0])
0
> mystery([0,0])
0
```

Yes, it’s the `AND`

operator:
interpreting `1`

as true and `0`

as false,
it only returns true if both inputs are true.

There are many ways we could implement the `AND`

neuron in JavaScript,
but in the McCulloch-Pitts model,
it’s implemented as:

```
const AND = ([x,y]) => x+y >= 2 ? 1 : 0
```

Instead of using an `&&`

operator,
we use addition and comparison.
The sum of the two inputs can only be `>= 2`

.

This implementation probably looks strange. But it has two nice properties. The first nice property is that we can implement other logical operators by changing just one number:

```
const OR = ([x,y]) => x+y >= 1 ? 1 : 0
```

By changing the `2`

to a `1`

,
we get `OR`

.
This number is called the *activation threshold*.
We can pull it out as a separate parameter,
and implement three binary operators:

```
const makeNeuron =
options =>
([x,y]) =>
x+y >= options.threshold ? 1 : 0
const AND = makeNeuron({threshold: 2})
const OR = makeNeuron({threshold: 1})
const ON = makeNeuron({threshold: 0})
```

The second nice property of the McCulloch-Pitts model
is that it resembles how physical neurons work:
the threshold number corresponds to
the neuron’s threshold potential
measured in *volts*.

So we can make `AND`

and `OR`

;
what about other operators like `NOR`

, or `XOR`

?
How would you define `NOR`

with the above `makeNeuron`

function?

It turns out you can’t do it!
To cope with this limitation,
the McCulloch-Pitts model introduces
*inhibitory* inputs.
So far, if any input is switched from `0`

to `1`

,
it increases the chance of the neuron outputting `1`

,
because it brings it closer to the threshold.
These inputs are *excitatory*.
By contrast, inhibitory inputs
stop the neuron outputting `1`

.
If *any* inhibitory inputs are `1`

,
the output will be `0`

.

Here’s `NOR`

with inhibitory inputs:

```
const makeNeuron = options => inputs => {
for (i of options.inhibitory)
if (inputs[i] === 1)
return 0;
let sum = 0;
for (i of options.excitatory)
sum += inputs[i];
return sum >= options.threshold ? 1 : 0;
}
const AND = makeNeuron({threshold: 2, excitatory: [0,1], inhibitory: []});
const OR = makeNeuron({threshold: 1, excitatory: [0,1], inhibitory: []});
const ON = makeNeuron({threshold: 0, excitatory: [0,1], inhibitory: []});
// So now we can define ...
const NOR = makeNeuron({threshold: 0, excitatory: [], inhibitory: [0,1]});
```

This `inhibitory`

parameter loosely corresponds to
inhibitory postsynaptic potential
in the physical model.
And the addition of this parameter lets us define `NOR`

, which is nice.
Now what about `XOR`

?
Can we define this, too?

Again, it turns out you can’t do it!
There is no combination of `threshold`

value and `inhibitory`

inputs
that implements `XOR`

.
However, if this is a model of the neuron,
this fact is not so much a deficiency
as an observation about neurons.

### More by Jim

- The inception bar: a new phishing method
- The hacker hype cycle
- Project C-43: the lost origins of asymmetric crypto
- How Hacker News stays interesting
- My parents are Flat-Earthers
- The dots do matter: how to scam a Gmail user
- The sorry state of OpenSSL usability
- I hate telephones
- The Three Ts of Time, Thought and Typing: measuring cost on the web
- Granddad died today
- Your syntax highlighter is wrong

Tagged #programming, #machinelearning. All content copyright James Fisher 2019. This post is not associated with my employer. Found an error? Edit this page.