A new neuroscience book argues that our brains aren't computers — they're the internet

Originally published at: A new neuroscience book argues that our brains aren't computers — they're the internet | Boing Boing


It’s been a longstanding practice to use whatever the latest technology happens to be as a metaphor for trying to understand the brain. I assume we’ll throw out this latest analogy once we invent something more advanced than the internet.

Maybe it’s comforting to frame a mystery in the familiar. In ancient Greece, the brain was a hydraulics system, pumping the humors; in the 18th century, philosophers drew inspiration from the mechanical clock. Early neuroscientists from the 20th century described neurons as electric wires or phone lines, passing signals like Morse code. And now, of course, the favored metaphor is the computer


Have they figured out how to get your brain to stop shitposting?


Came here for this! I propose we get ahead of things and start a movement to explain brain function as cryptocurrency, or maybe a drone swarm. Pick your favorite dystopia.


And it is a really terrible metaphor for the brain that has hindered understanding by layman and professionals alike.

Agreed. But as the 2 unquestionably route and process those signals in completely different ways, I don’t see how it could be a productive metaphor


My brain is the gig economy.


Fine, but a Turing Machine isn’t a metaphor. It is an actual specification for performing algorithms such that for any known calculation that can be performed there is a morphism between the thing performing the calculation and a Turing Machine. There has never yet been found a calculation that a brain can perform that a Turing Machine can’t - to the point that the burden of proof to show that there is no morphism between the brain and a turing machine is now firmly on the “magical brain” or “soul” crowd. To say that a brain “isn’t a computer” is to say that you believe in some sort of ontologically dubious nonsense.


No wonder I hate myself and have squandered the greatest thing ever given to me.


You’re talking about whether the brain can be used as a computer, not whether it works like one. Conway’s Game of Life is Turing complete and so can perform the exact same calculations as a Turing machine, and vice versa. But trying to understand it in terms of something going back and forth on an infinite tape would be a really useless approach.

By the way, is “I’m crashing” really a computer metaphor? Lots of things crash…I thought it was a direct analogy to coming down from a high quicker than you expected. I wonder when people started using it.


No, I’m talking about whether a brain is a computer. No metaphor or, in your case, simile.

Saying that Conway’s Game of Life is turing complete shows that it can do anything a computer can do. If you also show that a computer can do anything that Conway’s Game of Life can do (trivial since it runs on a computer), then you demonstrate that Conway’s Game of Life is a computer. Likewise with a brain.

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And my point was the definition you’re using for is a computer is a different one than the article, what it is capable of rather than how it manages to actually do that. The Game of Life works a computer and yet that fact is a terrible approach to actually understanding the details of it, which is the point here. But sure, have your own conversation about dualism instead then. :man_shrugging:

For the record, brains are really bad Turing machines. You ask them something simple like to multiply 24601 by 1701, and while they can figure out how to do it most come up with wrong answers as often as not.


This book looks fascinating, can’t wait to check it out.

Strikes me that all of reality is a multi-layered networking, protocol, and software stack, and the brain is a great example of this condensed into a specific thing we all know well.

Now, I also believe that ultimate existence is awareness/consciousness, and it is the programmer, if you will, behind all of it. Maybe a bit of a probabilistic computing system, all programmed out of pure awareness. Self-similar all the way up and down…

“I’m crashing.” “I need to reboot.” “I’m processing.” “That’s just how I’m programmed.”

I’ve done all those at once, I bet my co-workers miss me…


Gee whiz, I haven’t heard this idea since I read “The Society of Mind” by Marvin Minsky in 1986.


Based on my own experience this is an excellent metaphor for the brain. Like the internet, it’s full of irrelevant bullshit, endless rabbit holes, prejudiced analyses of what’s wrong with everyone else, idiotic advertising, and the same nonsense cut and pasted and re-posted, word for word, forever.


My brain is a non-fungible thinker


Have they located the chan region of the brain?

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That’s kind of like saying that there’s nothing a horse can carry that a jeep cannot. It may be accurate, but it’s still a very limited measure by which to understand the nature of horses.

A good understanding of the brain requires seeing it as more than a device that can perform calculations, just as a good understanding of horses requires seeing them as more than a device that can transport people and cargo.


Thanks for pointing out the book. I’ll give it a look.

While I started in cognitive psych, I switched to studying brain processing from the bottom up. How does cellular biophysics shape the processing ability of neurons? How does processing of individual neurons shape the network’s processing? How do the dynamic filters of synaptic connections influence this?

My dissertation was actually about neural routing and multiplexing. It showed how short-term synaptic plasticity allows neurons to multiplex information to different downstream targets (in that case to activate different muscles to coordinate walking). While it is hard not to describe multiplexing, signal processing, routing and computation without a modern tech metaphor, the fundamental differences between biology and silicon make it worth the effort.

At their core, computers are based on reliability of all-or-none, digital signals that produce a consistent output every time the same input occurs. At its core, biological nervous systems are noisy, inherently dynamic, spatially distributed, analog processors that produce stochastic responses. I really don’t think that trying to map the components of one on to the other can help us figure out how the brain does its thing (always happy to learn when I’m wrong though)


Sure but the issue is that when you say “A computer is a poor metaphor for a brain”, I look around for a definition of a computer and what I find is the mathematical abstraction of a Turing machine, which not only is not a poor metaphor for a brain but an actual hypernym. It’s closer to saying horses have extension in three dimensions the same way that 3 dimensional objects have extension in 3 dimensions. To me, that’s saying something very important about the fundamental nature of horses, even if it doesn’t actually tell you how the horse “works”. If you want to say a Dell XPS 15 is a poor metaphor for a brain, then I’m completely in agreement.