★ Generic neural control is distinguished from the cognitive operations it supports. ★ Cortical gamma oscillations are an activation-related generic control function. ★ This generic role of gamma suffices to account for its covariation with cognition. ★ The evidence for “binding-by-synchrony” is accounted for in these terms. ★ There is no compelling evidence for gamma oscillations as a cognitive operator.
Cortical oscillatory synchrony in the gamma range has been attracting increasing attention in cognitive neuroscience ever since being proposed as a solution to the so-called binding problem. This growing literature is critically reviewed in both its basic neuroscience and cognitive aspects. A physiological “default assumption” regarding these oscillations is introduced, according to which they signal a state of physiological activation of cortical tissue, and the associated need to balance excitation with inhibition in particular. As such these oscillations would belong among a variety of generic neural control operations that enable neural tissue to perform its systems level functions, without implementing those functions themselves. Regional control of cerebral blood flow provides an analogy in this regard, and gamma oscillations are tightly correlated with this even more elementary control operation. As correlates of neural activation they will also covary with cognitive activity, and this typically suffices to account for the covariation between gamma activity and cognitive task variables. A number of specific cases of gamma synchrony are examined in this light, including the original impetus for attributing cognitive significance to gamma activity, namely the experiments interpreted as evidence for “binding by synchrony”. This examination finds no compelling reasons to assign functional roles to oscillatory synchrony in the gamma range beyond its generic functions at the level of infrastructural neural control.