Your Brain Is Not a Computer


(So you shouldn’t treat it as one)


Your brain is not empty, but it’s not full of stuff either. As Robert Epstein explains in his article at AEON, “No matter how hard they try, brain scientists and cognitive psychologists will never find a copy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the brain.” Yet from the decade computers were invented — the 1940s — to our day, all kinds of experts on human behavior have insisted on the idea that the human brain works as a computer; that is, in a nutshell, that the brain stores information.

Think of a newborn. Epstein stresses the fact that a healthy human newborn is already “equipped with more than a dozen reflexes – ready-made reactions to certain stimuli that are important for its survival.” But, more importantly, “newborns come equipped with powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to change rapidly so they can interact increasingly effectively with their world, even if that world is unlike the one their distant ancestors faced.”

So we are born, then, with senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms. When you think of it, that’s already a lot of stuff! What are we then born without? According to Epstein, “information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.”

Put aside the computer science jargon, and you’ll find a clear, compelling idea: computers do have a physical memory. They really store information. They do retrieve it. They are always guided by an algorithm that tells them exactly what to do and how.

And yes, you already guessed it: we don’t. But we have always used metaphors to refer to human intelligence. As explained by the expert in artificial intelligence George Zarkadakis in his book In Our Own Image, for example, “the invention of hydraulic engineering in the 3rd century BC led to the popularity of a hydraulic model of human intelligence, the idea that the flow of different fluids in the body – the ‘humours’ – accounted for both our physical and mental functioning. The hydraulic metaphor persisted for more than 1,600 years, handicapping medical practice all the while”; the same thing happened in the 16th century, when “automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as René Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines.”

It seems it was only natural we ended up using the metaphor that reflects the most advanced kind of technology of our current era, as our forefathers did. As Epstein clearly explains, “The idea that humans must be information processors just because computers are information processors is just plain silly, and when, some day, the IP metaphor is finally abandoned, it will almost certainly be seen that way by historians, just as we now view the hydraulic and mechanical metaphors to be silly … We are organisms, not computers. Get over it. Let’s get on with the business of trying to understand ourselves, but without being encumbered by unnecessary intellectual baggage. The IP metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way. The time has come to hit the DELETE key.”

You can (and probably, should — it is really good!) read the whole article here.















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