The human brain does not work like a computer

The human brain does not work like a computer!

According to senior research psychologist Robert Epstein at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, author of 15 books, and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today in his Aeon article entitled “The Empty Brain”:

“Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Humans, on the other hand, do not — never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?”

For more than 1,600 years beginning in the 3rd century B.C., human philosophers believed that our brains worked based on a hydraulic model. There were four fluids that flowed in human bodies that explained human thought and action. These fluids were called “humours”.

Then in the 1500s A.D., Rene Descartes, looking at the springs and gears of engines powered by water and wind, asserted that humans were really complex machines. In the 1600s, Thomas Hobbes suggested that thought came as a result of small mechanical motions in the brain.

In the 1700s, after electricity had been observed and studied, and an understanding of chemistry developed, new theories about the brain and intelligence followed as metaphors of scientific theories. By the 1800s German physicist Hermann von Helmhotz described the brain as operating like the telegraph.

In the 1940s simple computers were developed. Scientists postulated that the brain operated like a computer. Mathematician John von Neumann stated dogmatically that our human nervous system was “prima facie digital”.

In 2013, Ray Kurzweil in his book “How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed” described the workings of the brain as a data processor, with the brain itself resembling integrated circuitry in its structure.

In 2021, Epstein challenged scientific researchers at prestigious research institutes to “account for intelligent human behavior without reference to any aspect of the IP [information processing] metaphor. They couldn’t do it…. In other words, they couldn’t offer an alternative.”

The problem, according to Epstein, is that by creating a computer metaphor of the human brain, scientific researchers have limited their ability to break away from the intellectual structures they developed to explain how the brain works.

This is what is called a syllogism—having two reasonable premises, but drawing a faulty conclusion based upon the premises. According to Epstein: “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 processors.”

So, just like there was the faulty assumption that the human brain operated according to the hydraulics of four liquids in 3 BC and later as machines, so also, the current metaphor that human brains are Information processors, should too, be rejected.

We know we possess memories, but we don’t know where or how they are stored, or even how they are retrieved. We only have hypotheses — guesses. In reality, we simply don’t know how or why the brain works the way it does.

Contrary to what historian Yuval Noah Harari has asserted in his book “Homo Deus”, we won’t be able to attain immortality by the development of super computers that we attach to our brains. Each person processes an event in a way unique to that person’s life experiences and genetic makeup.

Every individual possesses 86 billion neurons, give or take a few billion, with 100 trillion interconnections. “That vast pattern would mean nothing outside the body of the brain that produced it.”

Epstein concludes his article by emphatically stating: “We are organisms, not computers. Get over it…. 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.”

Faulty metaphors about how our brains actually function as they do is a mystery to us and will be for centuries, if not forever. We don’t need to worry that Artificial Intelligence will destroy millions of jobs. Machines and computers may change our lives, but human beings are still going to be necessary. Human beings will not become obsolete. Admitting our ignorance of how our brains operate and rejecting puny metaphors is a giant step in our struggle to understand our own behavior.

Humility must reign, not artificially created and faulty constructs.