Analogies for the Brain..

.. using the awesome power of stumbleupon set to my interest “Science Fiction” I came across this fascinating article about Future Brains: Neuroscience Fiction versus Neuroscience Fantasy.

What I found so excellent about this article was not just that it had tons of great information about how human brains actually work, but, more importantly, that it very succinctly and clearly explained how different human brains are from all the very oversimplified assumptions that are often made about our brains in various science fiction stories and, most importantly, in a lot of the rhetoric and common sense impressions of modern science.

Now–don’t get me wrong–neuroscience has learned TONS OF STUFF about human brains–and our knowledge–especially in the last 20 years–has grown exponentially.  However, one thing that has not grown nearly as fast has been the recognition that a lot of the very helpful tools that we have used to study brains–namely computers–are not at all similar to human (or other animal) brains AT ALL.  In fact, as the article implies and relates–the more we’ve learned about brains–the less their structure, operation, and growth seem anything like computers.

And yet,  according to most popular conceptions (and those in Science Fiction itself), people think of brains and of intelligence as being ever more machine like and they like to talk about human intelligence as if it is a computational device–when in reality–it is no such thing.  It is a processing unit, to be sure, but as a self-re-wiring electro-chemical network that extends way beyond just the core brain matter in order to do its work–it is nothing like the computer models and simulations that exist.

Anyway.. I think there are a lot of implications of this that will have a huge impact in our future.  One of them, I think, is that current computing models will max out and flatline in their attempts to mimic the processing system of even one unusually social water monkey at a level that is well below the power of that one skull without the use of fairly unreasonable amounts of processing power, and resources (see the first comment in the link..).

Now–this doesn’t mean that there won’t be some radical innovation in computer processing–such as quantum computing–but even granting that–it will be hard to see how current quantum computing models and powers–which seem geared towards solving certain kinds of problems–but not others–will really be the same as creating a vast and constantly changing neural network of 100-500 TRILLION synaptic connections formed by the 100 billion or so neurons that each of us has…

So what this seems to imply to me–is that to do any of the fancy sci-fi stuff that you regularly see on Star Trek–such as transporters or artificial intelligence or whatnot–that you are going to be more likely stuck with things like clones–biologically created duplicates (maybe the situation of the humanoid cylons from the Revisioned Battlestar Galactica) rather than simple assumptions of computers being able to quickly copy human neural patterns (like a xerox)–and that leads into the issue/question of whether these biologically created duplicates would actually be us–or whether they would be separate identities…

Anyway.. this is an incomplete thought.. but I thought this was a great article.. one that should be read by all..

We are not computers.. we are something much stranger, and infinitely more cool…

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5 Responses to Analogies for the Brain..

  1. Jeanja says:

    Totally agree. The brain is awesome. And as a professional computer programmer, I can tell you that computers are very NOT awesome.

    There is a great (but unfortunately very academic) paper that historically, psychologists’ “theory of the mind” is inspired by their tool du jour. When signal detection theory was a popular tool, the brain was conceived of a giant signal detector. When analysis of variance became popular, the “attribution theory” of mind was basically an analysis of variance. And when computers became popular, the mind was conceived of as having inputs, information processors, memory, and outputs, just like computers. (Here’s the link to the paper: http://library.mpib-berlin.mpg.de/ft/gg/GG_From_Tools_1991.pdf)

    • Loki says:

      Awesome.. thanks for the link! In the history of technology, the whole notion that the technology of the day supplies metaphors for how humans conceive of themselves is a pretty common one. You can actually see this simplistically when you look back at earlier warner bros. cartoons–where the insides of people’s heads were all about “geears” and crank shafts earlier…

  2. lauren says:

    this is a very fascinating subject. i haven’t had a chance to read the links yet, but your own article brings up some interesting points about the human brain vs. artificial intelligence vs. clones. one wishes one could jump ahead in time to see how it all plays out. at least scifi/fantasy writing will probably evolve to reflect the newer findings, if not actual science.

  3. Pingback: Meat versus Machine | The Philosophy of NOM

  4. Pingback: Meta-Systems and Motivation | The Philosophy of NOM

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