Is it wrong to think of the brain as being like a computer?

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31 January
12:37
31 January
13:18

It’s certainly not morally wrong to think about it. If you think it’s morally wrong then you’re getting into some interesting territory about the moral responsibility of computers and drones and things like that. I don’t think that’s what people mean by this.

It’s clear that human brains are capable of running what’s called a virtual machine where they can do logical operations. You can certainly say some elements of what we do - long division for example - is our brain working like a computer, or how an algorithm operates.

That said, most of the thinking that we do we do in a way that is quite different to how computers work. Although computers do seem to use more and more insights from human brain structures - so maybe there’s a degree of convergence.

At some level, most people would agree that brains are doing computations. For example there’s a Turing Machine - a Universal Turing Machine - which is a very generic computer that can compute any function. If you mapped out every single neuron in the brain and looked at its firing patterns you could make a computer that would do the same functions as the brain. Therefore you could think about the brain being like that computer.

"It’s very unlikely that we’re ever going to build a computer that will look exactly like a brain."

But the size of that computer would be absolutely huge, given the number of neurons we’ve got and the number of connections between them. So it’s very unlikely that we’re ever going to build a computer that will look exactly like a brain. What we’re likely to do is find ways that are more natural in terms of the hardware of a computer to do similar things to the human brain.

So there’s nothing wrong with thinking that the brain is like a computer, but in many ways the brain is just a lot different to a computer.

"Whereas information on a computer hard drive is laid out and ordered, that doesn’t seem to be the case with human memories"

There are similarities and differences. There are two principal differences. Firstly, the brain works in a content addressable fashion. Whereas information on a computer hard drive is laid out and ordered, that doesn’t seem to be the case with human memories.

The second difference is that if you can find the bit of the hard drive where your mum’s telephone number is stored you can, as it were, go in there with a small pin and scratch out that number and leave everything else intact. That doesn’t seem to be the way the brain works. Memories are not localised in that sort of way.

"We don’t have a laid out memory of people and things, but rather a more ‘holistic’ representation"

We have, what is called in the business, ‘graceful degradation’. And what that means is that as your memory fails it’s not that one by one your friends drop out, it just becomes harder to remember people. That again suggests that we don’t have a laid out memory of people and things, but rather a more ‘holistic’ representation. What we would call a more distributive representation of things and people across a whole network.

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