Your brain as a computer: outdated metaphor or ripe for revision?

A recent article was published by Robert Epstein regarding the outdated metaphor of comparing a brain to an information processor (or in modern terms, a computer). He argues that the parallel between the human nervous system and computing machines drawn by scientists over the past few decades is long overdue for an upgrade, although it is difficult for many a neuroscientist to even imagine what that alternative could be.

The faulty logic, according to Epstein, goes like this:

Reasonable Premise 1: All computers are capable of behaving intelligently.
Reasonable Premise 2: All computers are information processors.
Faulty Conclusion: All entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processes.

Examining this logic, one can see why the argument that humans must be information processes before computers are information processors is absolutely ludicrous, but yet, almost every neuroscientist I’ve met has made this comparison. I admit, that I have even made this analogy myself when explaining my work to the average individual who doesn’t spend their lifetime caring about systems neuroscience. But it still remain unclear what the brain actually does. But Epstein makes a valiant attempt to describe what it CANNOT do.

“We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation to a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computer do all of these things, but organisms do not.”

In this way, Epstein raises a valid point – human brains operate fundamentally differently from computers (the latter which quite literally processes information, creates a set of rules calls a ‘program’ or ‘algorithm,’ and uses these algorithms to do things). When it comes to processing information, it is clear that the brain is not very good at it. You can examine the results of any memory quiz (e.g., drawing a dollar from memory, or the penny memory game), and you’ll quickly realize that your memory bank is not as infallible as you may believe.

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