This book asks: How does a nerve convey information about the world toward the brain? It is a crucially important question - one of the most important questions in human history, in fact -- because before one can make realistic theories about how a brain works, one must know what sorts of signals it receives and acts upon.
We were all told, in basic biology, that this question was answered decisively in the 1920s: The nerve encodes and transmits information about the world in the form of frequency modulated pulse trains. The more intense the stimulus, the higher the pulse frequency, and the closer together the pulses in the train. In this system, a single impulse, or "spike", is trivial, in the sense that it is blank. It cannot convey any information alone. It takes at least two pulses to encode sensory meaning. The information that is read by the brain (meaning, say, a level of light, or the intensity of a musical tone) is encoded as the interval between pulses. And so as students we ate this FM story. And answered the inevitable, standardized questions about it on exams.
Now we learn that this familiar, ingrained bedrock idea is not actually true. Somehow, a single spike is - after all -- capable of conveying information to the brain. This news was not revealed in some single egregious experiment but, rather, by a substantial body of experimental results that have filtered into the literature recently. This book gathers and pivots around this unexpected (and probably very unpopular) body of research work, and I suggest that you initially skip all the introductory material and go straight to pages 54-60, where the experimental literature is summarized.
A nice example comes from studying the decision making time of bats. The animal uses echolocation to navigate in flight. An experimental question is this: How many nerve impulses can the creature's brain have decoded before it suddenly decides to swerve? The answer is on the order of one spike. One. Uno.
At this point in the book, the answer is already transparent. The secret of the neural encoding is that there is no code. A single spike conveys information. The information is explicit. No computation is required to extract it.
Ah, but not so fast. On page 4, the authors reiterate the all-or-none law, declaring that: "... incoming stimuli either produce action potentials, which propagate long distances along the cell's axon, or they do not. There are no intermediate signaling mechanisms. This means that a single neuron can provide information to the brain only through the arrival times of the spikes."
Evidently they still want to keep this absolute intact, and so they go on to recreate, in lieu of the familiar FM neural code, another more sophisticated code. This book is their proposal for a new code.
But it seems to me that having driven such wonderfully high piton (their assertion that the FM code isn't one) the authors proceed to rappel down the mountain very fast. Retreating, perhaps, into their alternative code theory.
Instead of following them to lower, safer ground, you might pause to consider this: There might exist, after all, "intermediate signaling mechanisms." The pulse cannot be amplitude modulated (this really is an absolute). But it can surely do many other clever things that would elude detection by the instruments used to study nerve impulses. (Voltage clamps, patch clamps, probes). Like what? It could spin. It could and probably does travel up the axon membrane in one of many discrete longitudinal channels, formed by protein links between adjacent ion channels. In such a nerve the information, or sensory increment level, is inherent in the channel number.
Neurobiology, as an industry, is somewhat at risk to ideas of the type that are let loose in this remarkable book. If one were to follow up on them, one might arrive at a theory of the brain that actually made sense. Well understood structures like the synapse would have to be explained in new ways, etc. There might be uproar.
Also take a look at Findings and Current Opinion in Cognitive Neuroscience, by Squire and Kosslyn. Chapter 25 reviews some the ideas presented in Spikes, and competing explanations offered by other authors in an effort to elucidate the so called "sparse code." One spike. Very sparse indeed. By all means get a copy of Spikes. It would be a shame to miss out on the scientific revolution it so strongly augers.