So, I read this interesting article by Robert Epstein titled “The Empty Brain”, in which he asserts that the brain does not process information, and that it is not a computer. He also asserts that the brain does not store memories. And other stuff. Anyway, I wanted to provide some counter-arguments for this article, because I think it ignores some pretty important things that we know about the brain…
First things first: Of course it processes information…
I don’t mean to be too dismissive about the ideas he presents, because I do think that Epstein has a valid point in that our brains don’t work in the same way as the computers that we’ve built work. A computer processes information in binary 1s and 0s, while our brain is basically a massively connected series of cellular salt-water batteries (neurons) that discharge their energy when stimulated by the discharges of other neurons or the nerves that connect to them. They’re both electrical, but there’s not too many similarities past that. Neurons grow and strengthen their synapses, connecting to thousands of other neurons a piece, resulting in trillions of connections. Silicon chips have a set number of connections, unable to grow or change on the fly when given new or different information.
However, neurons do indeed process information. Take the eye, for example: How do you know what you’re looking at? Light hits the eye, and rods and cones transmit the stimuli they receive to the Optic Nerve, which in turn sends the impulses to several parts of the brain. Layers of neurons then reconstruct the visual information to decipher color, shapes, and context, and then associate those with other information, such as the fact that seeing the letters “c”, “a”, and “t” in a row usually results in the recall of information not contained in those letters, such as facts about felines (four legs, furry, evil, uses litter boxes, evil, makes a sound that sounds like “meow”, and they’re evil).
The fact that the drawings that form those letters prompt the recall of information point directly to the light entering your eyes being processed into a format that the brain understands and works with, associated with information known about those letters, associated with information known about the word they form, and then prompting the immediate recall of related known information. All of that, but also with information about what your body is doing at the time so that your own movement and position are processed at part of that context (that whole video is worth a good watching, by the way). That is processing. Not binary 1s and 0s or mechanically accessing a hard drive, but the wetware style of processing that many animals with neurons possess.
Wetware means never having to access a hard drive…
I kind of jumped ahead in the previous section when talking about the brain processing information when I talked about the fact that looking at a series of letters can prompt an immediate return of related information. But I didn’t jump ahead, because the way the brain works means that processing and retrieving information go hand-in-hand. The firing of neurons in the brain usually involve several areas of the brain, and of those areas, the motor cortex and sensory regions are often involved. This is true even when you’re not actively moving or smelling or seeing or hearing. Thinking of the color red will activate the visual cortex. Thinking of movement will fire neurons in the motor cortex.
In fact, only the brain stem is really immune from being accessed by memories due to the fact that it runs automatic processes in the body, such as breathing and heartbeat- though even there, there are techniques one can use to access those and other faculties. The brain, in processing information, immediately tries to tie it to existing information and that act is an immediate “retrieval” of information already possessed by the brain through previous stimuli.
Stating that the brain stores no memories because the brain does not work literally like a hard drive is just plain wrong. Recent research is beginning to discover which neurons are the ones that “hold” them, and even how to manipulate memories or encode images into the format that the brain uses to see. And while none of these things work the same way as in the computer hardware we’ve developed, it does not mean that the concept is not still true.
And why are we up in arms about these computer terms anyway?
This brings me to my next point: Who cares if the best terms we have to describe the processes of the brain currently are analogous to computers? I mean, if you would like to specifically name the processes that the brain uses in its internal workings so that it’s not confused with the processes of a computer, fine. But, stating that the brain does not process or possess memories because you don’t like the terms or analogies used is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, it is enough to state that the brain does not process or store information like the computers we have built. To that, even non-experts reply “duh”. I get that clicks are needed, and there are many theories about the brain, probably the majority of which have certain degrees of correctness in them (or will, once we’ve figured things out, which will take a long time). But stating that the brain just somehow experiences things without calling the processes by the best terms we currently have available is turning a blind eye to the knowledge we’re currently gaining in the workings of the brain, because you don’t like the words used.
To sum my opinion on the article up: Not to say that Epstein doesn’t know his field, but he seems to be lagging a bit behind some of the things they’re finding, or maybe just not thinking that those discoveries are important or evident enough. Dismissing information because you think there’s a better term for it is not the best way to gather information.