The starting point for this post is a recent article in the excellent online magazine Aeon, The cerebral mystique. This article links to another, from two years ago, The empty brain. Go read them (about 4000 words each).
Both pieces push back on what their authors see as unbalanced, one-sided views of complex, nuanced questions. In both cases I agree with a great many of their formulations, and agree that the prevailing views do seem unbalanced in the way the articles suggest. But I would argue that both articles are themselves overstated.
Taking ‘The empty brain’ first, the subtitle reads: ‘Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge, or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.’ To the statement ‘your brain is not a computer’ there should be no objection. The first statement is not one that I can sign on to unless it is taken to mean ‘Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge, or store memories, if by those phrases you mean something at all like what happens in a computer.’ In the third sentence of the article itself, the author doubles down: ‘[the brain] does not contain most of the things people think it does—not even simple things such as “memories”.’ Memories may not be discrete ‘things’, but whatever they are, surely they are to be found in brains and not elsewhere.
Going on a bit, there is a paragraph beginning ‘Computers, quite literally, process information—numbers, letters, words, formulas, images.’ Well, no. Computers process data; human beings harness this ability of computers by setting up correspondences between raw data and information of various kinds so that the system as a whole effectively processes information.
The author turns to an experiment involving drawing a dollar bill from memory; the result is, not surprisingly, feeble. Discussing the result, he writes, ‘Having seen dollar bills before, she was changed in some way. Specifically, her brain was changed in a way that allowed her to visualise a dollar bill—that is, to re-experience seeing a dollar bill, at least to some extent.’ A few paragraphs on: ‘no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been “stored” in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions.’ I agree that what is happening is a matter of changing brains, and that this is a very accurate way of thinking about it, but I would argue that the information has been ‘stored’ in the brain—where else?
Indeed, in the move from dollar bills to songs and poems we start to touch on the way that human langauge and culture has indeed moved brains in the ‘digital direction’. A word is a definite token of information, not the same as any other word. In a song within the context of Western music, the pitch and duration of each note is definite, not fuzzy. If we ask someone to reproduce a poem or song that they know, they may get small details wrong, but the result will still be close to perfectly accurate.
I agree whole-heartedly with the author’s remarks about the vast complexity of the brain changes involved in any given experience, the uniqueness of each brain, and the foolishness of the widespread belief in immortality through ‘downloading’.
Going on to ‘The cerebral mystique’, again I agree with the overall thrust of the article and with many of the specific points made.
There is some confusion, though, in the paragraphs discussing brain size and complexity. ‘It has become a cliché to refer to the brain as “the most complex thing in the known Universe”. This saying is inspired by the finding that human brains contain something on the order of 100,000,000,000 neurons, each of which makes about 10,000 connections (synapses) to other neurons.’ Going on, then, to compare the cell count of human livers to human brains completely misses the point, which has to do precisely with those 10,000 connections. The brain starts off with more structural complexity than the liver (it would take more information to specify its architecture), and then, as the previous article emphasizes, it is changed by everything that happens to its possessor. The following discussion touching on the size of bird and rodent brains is overly hasty, failing to reckon with the factors that have led to the development of the encephalization quotient.
The cited ‘cliché’ is accurate: the brain really is ‘the most complex thing in the known Universe’, at least for some definition of ‘thing’. For each human brain, there is a fact of the matter about how the neurons are connected and what conditions will cause each neuron to fire, and it would take an enormous amount of data to represent this state of affairs.
But consider something (is it a ‘thing’? is in ‘in the Universe’?) like ‘the English language’. This fuzzy abstraction subsists in the brains of speakers of the language, and only there. All the printed and recorded samples of English are mere data, becoming information as speakers of the language interact with them. And all of human culture is like this. Even our physical world, which today consists to a large extent of human artifacts, is causally linked with the brains of the human beings who brought those artifacts into existence.
The confusion between data and information comes into play here too. The author writes, ‘The environment shoots many megabytes of sensory data into the brain every second, enough information to disable many computers. The brain has no firewall against this onslaught.’ But the brain deals with information, or we might better say meaning, not data. We have come to think of our sensorium, especially its visual and auditory components, in terms of data because of our awareness of how our devices deal with it, but as soon as it gets past our retinas or our cochlear hairs it starts to become meaning. What we have is better than a firewall.
Yes, there is no ‘bright line’ separating brains from bodies, and nonhuman cognition from human cognition, but the dim perception that our world is deeply entwined with processes occurring in human brains is fundamentally accurate.