Computer as Brain Metaphor

I have been splitting my reading lately between finite automata and metaphors that shape thought and action. My husband Jonathan and I have an on-going debate about the appropriateness of using the computer as a metaphor for the human brain. I find it useful for describing all sorts of events; he feels it undervalues the capabilities and elegance of the brain.

I probably don't need to pitch my side of the argument to y'all. You've likely said things like...
  • I wish I could install more RAM.
  • Dude, that guy totally overclocked his processor.
  • I can only hold x things in memory.
  • Core dump!

But it bothers Jon, and he takes me to task whenever I say something that betrays my underlying metaphor. I've been trying to understand why we have different emotional stances on this, and I've hit on the following. As a programmer, I think of my computer as the outlet of my creativity, the tool by which I express my craft. A user tends to think of his computer as an annoying appliance that would give him access to all this great stuff (entertainment, social contact, information, pr0n), if it would just freakin' work. You've seen how users treat their laptops: bang, pound, whack! Given how Jon and I view our brains (as valuable, precision tools), I can see why he does not want to think of his brain the way a user thinks of his computer.

Beyond that, I see Jon's side: This metaphor leads you to think of intelligence in terms of processor speed or amount of RAM, which leads you to believe you can quantitatively compare the intelligence of one human to another, and that leads to a very narrow definition of human intelligence. There is more to intelligence than number of instructions per second. To satisfy me, a metaphor for intelligence has to accommodate empathy and personality and intuition. From these spring creativity, and society, and humanity.

At least, that's what the wetware wants me to believe.


David said...

I'm going to have to go with Jon on this one. I think that if you equate a human mind to a computer then you are definitely minimizing the complexity of the human mind. I have definitely never compared metaphorically or otherwise anybodies brain to a computer. Computers are much more powerful. ;-)

Fred said...

I think you're both right, even if I am leaning towards agreeing more with Jon. Maybe that's because I also come at this from a non-programmer angle; or maybe it's because just about every new technology that comes along gets appropriated as a metaphor for the human brain at some point. And just about every one of them falls short in some critical way. Then again, such is the nature of metaphor. Its value is much more suggestive than descriptive. Your brain isn't a computer, but thinking about the ways in which it acts like one (or doesn't) is a good way to think about improving your brain and your computers.

Jonathan L. said...

I also suspect that thinking of the brain as a computer leads people to inaccurate expectation and generalizations:

* Expecting more "computery" behavior from the brain.
* Thinking that brains can be fixed the way computers are fixed.
* Attributing brain-like intelligence and emotional behavior to ordinary computers.

Each of these assumptions can seed significantly inaccurate behavior. When you're concentrating about it you're not going to believe that your computer has emotions, but repeated usage of the brain–as-computer metaphor sets the stage for casual, inattentive sprouting of incorrect beliefs.

Anonymous said...


I am not sure if it is still around, but if you can find it, take a look at "What Computers Can't Do" by Hubert L Dreyfus.

Might be a good gift for the hubby


Sharon said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Kurt. With libraries, everything is still around. ^_^ That one, and its updated edition (What Computers Still Can't Do), are available at the UT library. I've added it to the queue...