My brain hurts (a little)

Dave Snowden serves up a very high fibre meal today. His focus is on the ways our brains are not like computers, referencing this list of ten key differences.

I was attracted to this because I’ve become increasingly sceptical about approaches that appear to rest on the metaphor of “brain-as-computer”. For instance, I distrust the notion of “installing new beliefs” as if that’s just like sticking a new piece of software into our heads.

I’m not against reframing or suggesting different ways of thinking about things but I resist the idea that “changing how we think” is the absolute key to all change. (I remember a powerpoint called “Creating a Compelling Case for Change”. It was created by consultants trying to change the culture of an oil company. It was very uncompelling, and a very think-centric approach to change).

Dave is particularly interested in the implications for notions of distributed intelligence. Our brains don’t work in a binary fashion, there isn’t a clear distinction between hardware and software so their internal intelligence is distributed. Crucially, it’s outsourced too… here’s one example which fascinated me:

For example, despite your intuitive feeling that you could close your eyes and know the locations of objects around you, a series of experiments in the field of change blindness has shown that our visual memories are actually quite sparse. In this case, the brain is “offloading” its memory requirements to the environment in which it exists: why bother remembering the location of objects when a quick glance will suffice? A surprising set of experiments by Jeremy Wolfe has shown that even after being asked hundreds of times which simple geometrical shapes are displayed on a computer screen, human subjects continue to answer those questions by gaze rather than rote memory. A wide variety of evidence from other domains suggests that we are only beginning to understand the importance of embodiment in information processing.

Needless to say, a rather signicant part of the environment to which we’re outsourcing intelligence are the other two-legged creatures with their own intelligences…(Mark, I’m thinking of you).

Another idea Dave liked and that got me intrigued and puzzled was this: unlike computers, our brains don’t have a clock. Try thinking about that for a while. For me it’s like trying to contemplate infinity…

2 thoughts on “My brain hurts (a little)

  1. David Zinger

    Johnnie, good points…

    I like Edelman’s jungle metaphor:

    “…our brain’s development and operation resemble the rich, layered ecology of a junge environment. A jungle has no external developer, no predetermined goals. Indeed, it’s a messy place characterized more by organic excess than by goal-directed economy and efficiency. No one organism or group runs the jungle…So it is with our brain…think of the vast number of highly connected neural networks that make up our brains as the neural equivalent of the complex set of jungle organisms that respond variously to environmental challenges.”

    Me Tarzan you brain!


  2. livingbrands

    What’s the difference between brains and computers? (UPDATED)

    Like duh!, I hear you all exclaim. That’s easy. One looks like this… And the other looks like this… It’s obvious. But joking aside, the ‘brain as computer’ metaphor is one that holds a lot of sway over us. It


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