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Is the Brain Like a Computer?



By Frank Simons

Is the brain like a computer? This lecture examines brains and computers at different scales, from their smallest components to their overall architecture. The final conclusion is that brains are not very much like computers, but the examination that leads to that conclusion has a lot to tell us about both.

At the ground level, computers work in terms of binary digits and logic gates. Brains are built of neurons, very different and much more complex structures. Starting with a rough functional outline, a picture of the complexity of neurons is drawn by adding crucial details. Contemporary computers use a von Neumann architecture of central processor and memory. A quick tour of the brain shows its history and its structure and highlights important and functionally distinct areas. At this level, too, the brain is very different and significantly more complex than any computer. Neural nets offer computers that are closer to brains.

The basic structure of every modern computer consists of a memory unit for storing data and programming, a control unit for retrieving data and performing operations on data, an arithmetical side unit to help, and devices to facilitate input and output. In serial programming, computer operation amounts to “fetch, operate, and store.”

The brain is a massively parallel processor rather than a serial processor. The modularity of the brain is a remnant of its evolutionary history. At the core is the reptilian brain, which includes smell, movement, and the first reception stations for visual stimuli. The mammalian brain is built on top of the reptilian and includes the limbic system. It is the cortex that is most developed in humans, a wrinkled exterior that maximizes surface area. Brain anatomy is divided into two hemispheres. Each hemisphere is divided into occipital, parietal, temporal, and frontal areas.

Because we design them, we understand how computers work at every level. We are ignorant of brain function at many levels. We have some grasp of brain function at the level of the neuron. We have a grasp of the brain at the largest scale, derived from lesion and scan studies. We are almost entirely ignorant of how the brain works at the crucial middle level, the level of networks of connected neurons.

Professor Patrick Grim, as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has provided his students with invaluable insights into issues of philosophy, artificial intelligence, theoretical biology, and other fields. Professor Grim was awarded the university’s presidential and chancellor’s awards for teaching excellence and was elected to the Academy of Teachers and Scholars.

There will be an opportunity for discussion following the video.

Presentations of the center are offered without charge. Donations are gratefully accepted.


Video Presentation

Philosophy of Mind: Part 16, Brains and Computers

Thu, Sep 21, 5:30pm

Meditation Center

Callejon Blanco 4

Free, donations accepted


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