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Norwich's Entropy Theory: how not to go from abstract to actual

Lance Nizami (Palo Alto, California, USA)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 9 August 2011




The purpose of this paper is to ask whether a first‐order‐cybernetics concept, Shannon's Information Theory, actually allows a far‐reaching mathematics of perception allegedly derived from it, Norwich et al.'s “Entropy Theory of Perception”.


All of The Entropy Theory, 35 years of publications, was scrutinized for its characterization of what underlies Shannon Information Theory: Shannon's “general communication system”. There, “events” are passed by a “source” to a “transmitter”, thence through a “noisy channel” to a “receiver”, that passes “outcomes” (received events) to a “destination”.


In the entropy theory, “events” were sometimes interactions with the stimulus, but could be microscopic stimulus conditions. “Outcomes” often went unnamed; sometimes, the stimulus, or the interaction with it, or the resulting sensation, were “outcomes”. A “source” was often implied to be a “transmitter”, which frequently was a primary afferent neuron; elsewhere, the stimulus was the “transmitter” and perhaps also the “source”. “Channel” was rarely named; once, it was the whole eye; once, the incident photons; elsewhere, the primary or secondary afferent. “Receiver” was usually the sensory receptor, but could be an afferent. “Destination” went unmentioned. In sum, the entropy theory's idea of Shannon's “general communication system” was entirely ambiguous.

Research limitations/implications

The ambiguities indicate that, contrary to claim, the entropy theory cannot be an “information theoretical description of the process of perception”.


Scrutiny of the entropy theory's use of information theory was overdue and reveals incompatibilities that force a reconsideration of information theory's possible role in perception models. A second‐order‐cybernetics approach is suggested.



Nizami, L. (2011), "Norwich's Entropy Theory: how not to go from abstract to actual", Kybernetes, Vol. 40 No. 7/8, pp. 1102-1118.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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