Is your brain really like a computer?

Posted on May 22, 2016

As I’m reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, I found this article from Aeon1 about the brain and the bad analogy it suffers from computers.

In it, Robert Epstein writes that brains are not at all like computers, but their own organic things. For example, they don’t store information like computers: the author asked people to draw from memory 1$ bills and then to draw them with a reference. The results vastly differ, the first draw being very sparse and the second much more elaborate2, showing that our brain has trouble to store that kind of information, unlike computers who don’t have any problem to do it.

Then, the author moves to a different thing: the idea of downloading your brain to a computer. And this is where the article rang a bell: this is a subject that Bostrom talks about in his book, but focusing mainly on the technical difficulties of doing it: how to scan a brain down to the protein scale, how to get the sufficient processing power to run it, …

But here, the author makes a totally different point: you just can’t do it.

This is because your brain and a computer aren’t the same things at all, not dealing with the same kind of things : you can’t store memories like a computer can, as you don’t deal with situations like a computer does: when you walk, you don’t calculate the size between your steps, the inclination of your legs, your balance, et cetera. You just do it; as a computer has to all of those things3.

The author then points out to Stephen Rose book4 : The future of the brain, who shows that to understand the current state of the brain, you have to get its entire history and the social context of its owner, because you can’t just replicate it like a digitized file : by itself the brain is just cells (neurons) interconnected (synapses), and cells can’t just store things.

There is a piece missing in our understanding of our brain — something that we will probably not get until a century5 — that make things work. But thinking that they work like computers could refrain it.

  1. Thanks to Farnam Street “Brain Food” mailing list. You should subscribe to it. ↩︎

  2. You should check the illustration on the article ↩︎

  3. ↩︎

  4. That I didn’t read and don’t know the worth. But it has good ratings on Amazon! ↩︎

  5. I have some doubts about this, but first, I have to finish Bostrom book. ↩︎