- Traditionally, the information content of the neural response is quantified using statistics of the responses relative to stimulus onset time with the assumption that the brain uses onset time to infer stimulus identity. However, stimulus onset time must also be estimated by the brain, making the utility of such an approach questionable. How can stimulus onset be estimated from the neural responses with sufficient accuracy to ensure reliable stimulus identification? We address this question using the framework of colour coding by the archer fish retinal ganglion cell. We found that stimulus identity, “what”, can be estimated from the responses of best single cells with an accuracy comparable to that of the animal's psychophysical estimation. However, to extract this information, an accurate estimation of stimulus onset is essential. We show that stimulus onset time, “when”, can be estimated using a linear-nonlinear readout mechanism that requires the response of a population of 100 cells. Thus, stimulus onset time can be estimated using a relatively simple readout. However, large nerve cell populations are required to achieve sufficient accuracy.