Have you ever thought that the computer is the perfect analogy for the workings of the brain?

Even if you haven’t, doesn’t it just feel right?  Short-term memory is like memory in a computer, both can only hold a limited amount of information at one time and that information is used for active processing.  Long-term memory is like a computer’s hard drive storage – it takes a little while to put things there, but once they’re stored, they’re in there for a long time.  A computer’s processor is analogous to the brain’s processing capability – and I suppose if you want to take the metaphor to the Nth degree, eyes are like a webcam and the mouth is like a speaker, etc., etc…

I often think of this metaphor when I’m organizing my to-do lists.  In my mind, my lists (I use Evernote) are like an external hard drive for to-dos.  They allow me to keep important to-do items outside of my short-term memory, freeing up my brain’s working memory for concentrating on other things.

After much Googling, I now know this as the “brain-computer analogy” and up until last week, I strongly prescribed to this metaphor. The thing that changed my mind was a one-off line in Mistakes Were Made by Carol Tavris.  Although completely tangential to the main message of the book, this line stuck with me anyway (I paraphrase): throughout history, people have always used the predominant communication technology of the age as an analogy for the workings of the brain.

This one line got me thinking that there must have been a 1980’s version of myself, sitting patiently in front of a early computer writing about how the fax machine is the perfect analogy for the workings of the brain.  Going back even further, I suppose there may even have been a 1920’s version of myself writing out longhand how the telegraph is the perfect analogy for the workings of the brain.

Realizing that every past generation has thought of their communication technology as the perfect analogy for the workings of the brain, it feels quite myopic to even discuss the brain computer analogy at all.  First, it’s not even that good of an analogy.  The computer does no justice to the different regions of the brain responsible for processing different kinds of information.  Secondly, we don’t even fully understand everything about how the brain works!  The inner working of the brain is still one of life’s great mysteries.

Two concluding thoughts here –

1) There will always be a better technology.  Today we feel that the fax machine is a silly explanation for how the brain works (and overall an outdated technology) – but someday someone will feel that exact same way about the computers we use today.

2) If we really want to advance technology, we should probably spend some more time understanding the inner working of the human brain.  The most powerful computer of all is located inside each one of us.

The Brain-Computer Analogy
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  • Simon Dexter


    Great thoughts on computer/brain analogy. I’m of opinion that human brain is Turing-computable, so will have some human-like AI in the future.

    Computer memory hierarchy is indeed a good analogy to human brain. By the way, it seems that psychology is gradually converging on the idea that intelligence is directly proportional to the volume of fluid/working memory, and it even seems there is an exercise (which I do quite often) that can help you improve it – dual-n-back (see Jaeggi’s research.)

    If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend reading ‘Permutation City’ by Greg Egan – this is some hard science fiction (really more science than fiction), which apparently preceded Matrix by a few years and it explores what it’d be like to simulate human brains in a virtual environment.

    Let me know your thoughts…

    Simon Dexter

  • Andrew

    Simon – thanks for the thoughts here! Also- thanks for the book recco. Interested to see those exercises to improve working memory. I’ll have to check them out!


  • Good point about the tendency of people to use whatever analogy they are comfortable with with respect to the human brain.

    As a minor point, a better analogy is that the brain functions as a very low-powered computer that avoids doing computation at nearly any cost. Computation is (i) energy intensive, and (ii) time-consuming. Using previously-calculated results (caching) with minimal adjustments when necessary, and picking up easily-available information from others in the area are two techniques.

  • Mahsa Asadi

    I totally agree with the last part. Thanks for sharing your thought :-)