Your brain does not process information and it is not a computer | Aeon Essays

Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.

Written by Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.

No matter how hard they try, brain scientists and cognitive psychologists will never find a copy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the brain – or copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli. The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.

We are organisms, not computers. Get over it. Let’s get on with the business of trying to understand ourselves, but without being encumbered by unnecessary intellectual baggage. The IP metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way. The time has come to hit the DELETE key.

“We don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t the fish.”
— John M. Culkin

The spirit of the time can be described pretty comprehensively by someone distanced from it, but it is virtually impossible to be aware of its peculiarities when immersed in it. In my article “The Importance of Metaphors” I tried to discuss several approaches to help in becoming at least somewhat more aware of it.

The current metaphor, as referred to in Epstein’s article as the “IP metaphor”, looks at the world as if it is all some kind of computer. As I explained in my article on metaphors (also of interest might be Von Neumann, Revisited) this “idea” of a computer is a very limited and distorted one: the result of a popularised representation that for some obscure reason exactly misses the point of the computer in the first place: it is not a machine, a device, but an extension of our human capability of language. In fact this misunderstanding is to a large degree a metaphoric confusion resulting from a backlash of the previous leading metaphor, the Steam Engine.

Language, unfortunately for Epstein, is exactly what he argues against: a method for symbolic representation, and manipulation. Language is the distinguishing property of the species of Homo Sapiens, and very much attributed to our brains, bodies, families, groups and social structures, and the biological world in which we are embedded. Language might even be not uniquely human but an endemic property of all life, as Daniel Dennet in From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds explains.

The computer can be seen as an extension of our human faculty of language, but it is another thing to see our brain as a “kind of computer”. That metaphor does not see the computer as a language expression (similar to writing and printing), but as a mechanical architecture: the processing of information, still usually within the von Neumann part 2 definition (that of a processing and memory unit).

There the metaphor goes wrong. The brain is so much more complex in its architecture than any computer based on this mechanical definition can ever be. We are only scratching the surface in understanding the brain (or for that matter, biology and the cell).

A Viral (Arc)hive for Metazoan Memory: Cell

Arc, a master regulator of synaptic plasticity, contains sequence elements that are evolutionarily related to retrotransposon Gag genes. Two related papers in this issue of Cell show that Arc retains retroviral-like capsid-forming ability and can transmit mRNA between cells in the nervous system, a process that may be important for synaptic function.

The article shows a new discovery, namely that our nerve cells are capable not only of transmitting “information” through electric signalling with dendrites and synapses, but even, using the same trick retroviruses use, through modifying target cell DNA. In fact this one discovery might upend everything we thought we knew about our brains, based on the IP metaphor. Complexity just exploded!

This requires us to really reconsider our metaphors.

Images from,

Why it does not work

or: the lack of cohesion-awareness.

In The Netherlands we have in our public transport trains the concept of silent compartments (quiet areas). Abundantly signalled in the compartments, the idea is that people are quiet in there, so that you can concentrate on work or just relax. There’s often people who pretend they have not seen the signals, or just because they do not want to acknowledge the concept, and talk or make other loud noises. Understandably this annoys other travellers. However the simple act of asking the perpetrators to be quiet has almost just as often the opposite effect. They become even more angry, and the conflict (as many conflict nowadays seem to do…) often escalates to dangerous levels. I was even suggested by the railway helpdesk, on complaining about this, that my best option would be to move to another compartment…

Another problem that irritates a lot of people is traffic jams. Sometimes they even seem to pop up out of nowhere and disappear just as silently. Of course most really large tailbacks are caused by accidents. What most people do not realise (because of the lack of cohesion-awareness) is that the net time to arrive at your destination can be minimised by a very simple trick: do not drive too fast!

I remember the (then) minister responsible for infrastructure saying she “could not explain speed limits”. I would say that explaining things like that is exactly her responsibility! Research has shown that a speed limit of 70 km/h on our congested roads would result in congestion disappearing and faster net arrival times. How can you not explain that?

As a small child my mother, as many mothers (and fathers) still do, took me to feed the ducks. Old and stale bread in a basket. I loved seeing the birds flock to get the food.

Near my office there is a pond with, surprise, ducks. I guess the ritual is repeated many times each day, only it is not just ducks that get fed. Masses of seagulls appear as well. The escalating problem that city councils face is that all this feeding attracts seagulls. Because of the abundance of food they start nesting on roofs, creating an awful lot of problems with their droppings and all. Most of the food gets spilled however, by sinking in the water, and gets to feed animals you definitely do not want to profligate in your cities and towns like rats! This food extravaganza is a potential cause of many diseases as well.

Complex systems are rife with feedback mechanisms. Most of these are very hard or actually impossible to detect and document. They are so much interwoven that it is impossible to see where one ends and another starts. It is the web of interconnected and interdependent things. However my impression is that not many people pay attention to those interdependencies. Or are even willing to consider that they miss most of them.

A story told by the “granddaughter of Chroestjev” Nina Khrushcheva (in fact she was his great-granddaughter) of a visit by a relative from her niece from Russia, in Vienna where Nina lived. They took a bus, and Nina stamped her ticket in the machine in the bus. Her niece exclaimed: “why do you do that? There is no-one to enforce that!”. That, Nina explained, is the difference between Russia and “the West”. “In Russia you only do something out of fear of getting caught, while I choose to pay for my ticket because I know that is what it costs to maintain that service on a level that, in the end, benefits me and everyone else.”

For Americans the fact that Swedish people actually want to pay taxes is incomprehensible. Their first priority is to minimise the amount they have to pay, and paying no taxes whatsoever is best. A deep and mostly subconscious mistrust of government seems to be behind this. For the Swedes the American attitude feels quite stupid: by paying taxes they are able to create and maintain a high quality of living for all citizens that they see is totally lacking in the United States.

On the last Dutch National Architecture Conference (LAC) I did a short survey in a session I did (called “Embracing the Future”) where the audience consisted of mostly architects. My question was how they responded to the road signs that are sometimes activated telling the drivers to maximise their speeds to 70 km/h. My expectation was that, being architects, they would be more than average inclined to actually comply. In practice we see that most drivers, especially when there does not seem to be a direct need to reduce speed, do not comply and continue driving with 120 km/h or more. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed that it seemed that only a handful raised their hands. The reason I thought they would comply more, is that compliance would, overall, result in more efficient traffic flow and less congestion which, in the end, would also benefit themselves. And architects especially would be an audience appreciating these arguments, or so I thought.

Feitse Boerwinkel
Feitse Boerwinkel

A (Dutch) book from 1966 recently came to my attention, written by the Dutch cultural philosopher Feitse Boerwinkel, called “Inclusive thinking – a different time requires a different way of thinking”. A very small book (only 98 pages) it was maybe the most influential inspiration for a whole cultural and educational reform in The Netherlands, completely in line with the spirit of the time.

Feitse argues for a different way of thinking he calls “inclusive thinking”. I have talked about the shift to sequential thinking that took place over a long period from the classical Greece to the Renaissance. As does Feitse, I think we are now in an era in which we are again shifting our mental mode towards a non-sequential, inclusive, time-transcending way of thinking. The movie “Arrival” depicts an alien species that completely transcended sequential thinking and even tells the story of a language that is completely non-sequential.

Movie poster Arrival

Time-bound thinking is coming to an end. Jan-Peter van der Berg, the Dutch psychiatrist,devoted an entire book on this development, which he traces from the European Middle Ages to the (then: 1970) present: Dieptepsychologie (“Depth Psychology”). In the book he talks about the rise (after the Middle Ages) and fall (in the hippie years) of the subconscious part of our minds as a somehow separate or dissociated part of ourselves.

This development is one we are smack in the middle of, which makes it hard (and for many: impossible) to see. I think the evolution of humankind is mostly a mental one, and the direction in which we are moving is so very interesting.

You might want to read my article “Why software bites back”.

von Neumann, revisited


Intel’s Bold Plan to Reinvent Computer Memory (and Keep It a Secret)

John von Neumann (during the Manhattan project, 1940-1945). Public domain, Link

We all read John von Neumann’s groundbreaking paper “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” back when it was published in 1945, did we not (just joking)?

You should. And read it well, because not many people did (I know of no-one). OK, I admit that some of the mathematics is above me as well, but one thing stuck with me: there are two ways of building a programmable computer. One is how we started doing it, which has become known as the “von Neumann architecture”: a memory unit and a processing unit, and a speeding cycle between the two, transferred through a bus.

We’ve all seen Alan Kay’s famous cardboard model of what a modern computer could look like, from 1965, did we?

Alan Kay’s Dynabook concept model (1965). Copyright Owner © Mark Richards

As we all did (OK I’ll stop here, but I am not kidding: you should have read them!), Alan Kay had read the article by Gordon Moore (inspired by Doug Englebart already in 1959), about cramming more processors on an Integrated Circuit:

The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year. Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase. Over the longer term, the rate of increase is a bit more uncertain, although there is no reason to believe it will not remain nearly constant for at least 10 years.

Useless, Alan Kay reasoned, to think about what computers can do now. We should be thinking about what they might be able to do 10 years from now, because it is almost unfathomable! And the Dynabook was a concept born from that daydreaming. A machine with a radio inside, able to communicate with similar devices in a world-spanning peer-to-peer network. How about that!

I fear that Alan Kay may be one of the very few who realised the consequence of Moore’s Law (as it was named in 1975). And now here we are, more than half a century later, and still we believe that von Neumann’s first proposal is the only way to build computers! And we still believe that creating the tools to tap that power should be built based on that architecture (memory-processor = data-functions)!

Change is inevitable. Even though Alan Kay’s vision from 1965 is still not really realised, it might be coming near now. Developments in hardware like memory and processors really start showing the shortcomings of the “first” von Neumann architecture. Massive parallelism, but especially memory that is so fast that the difference between memory and disk is disappearing, and memory that is persistent, is changing the game in a fundamental way. New computer architectures are desperately needed.

Intel’s 3D XPoint promises memory that is more than a 1000 times faster than flash, and stores more than 10 times more than DRAM. Memory and storage will no longer be different, databases are a thing of the past (everything can be done in-memory, just think about this!).

Computers are not about technology

The main problem of the technological focus of computers is precisely that: that it is seen as a technology.

Because of that, technologically savvy people are attracted to it, and arising problems in all areas of life are discussed within a technological mindset.

Our current society is very much coloured by technology. Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian and one of the founders of modern cultural history, pointed out the dangers of this focus in several works of cultural criticism during the rise of National Socialism in Germany.

Technology is usually seen as an antithesis to life, although not necessarily so (please review some of the talks of Kevin Kelly). When a technological mindset is applied to problems of society or politics, the attitude quickly becomes one of “designing solutions”. We “design” a set of laws, a computer system, a business, a medication, a treatment plan — anything to create a desired future. We feel that if we do this, we are in control. The leading metaphor of modern “western” society is that of the “successful person”: life is what you make of it, failure is a personal choice, freedom is the highest value. Even our own identity became a design target.

That this strategy usually fails does not seem to teach us a lesson.

Certainly, I completely agree that human beings evolve through learning. That the focus of human evolution has shifted to the mental plane, at least to a large extend, I do not contend. But the essence of that uniquely human trait, our mind, is not knowledge or even the power that some associate with it.

The essence of our mind is that it is a communicating device.

Through our mind and its defining human characteristic: language, the human species is doing something quite extraordinary. It is almost creating a new life form, one that has been called noosphere by Teilhard de Chardin. We can view the invention of the modern computer, and the revolution that is taking place as a result of that, as an extension of the linguistic ability of the human species.

The power of human language is extended in the history of the human species by several developments:

  1. The invention of drawing and writing
  2. The invention of the modern printing press (movable type)
  3. The invention of the modern computer

Each of these developments had dramatic effects. We know that the invention of writing more or less coincides with the first city-states and the rise of the upper-class. It coincides with concepts of ownership (like land, cattle, and women), codified law, but also the concept of time-keeping and even devices to help measure time in a fixed and location-independent way.

It is no different with the invention of the printing press, which, as we know, made knowledge suddenly widely available.

However, the invention of the modern computer is still taking place. We are in the middle of it. Our society is going through fundamental upheavals.

Computers are not about technology. They are about language.

The Live Domain

Conway's Game of Life
Conway’s Game of Life

Prompted by an old discussion on Reddit (link expired), kicked off by the question: “Please explain OOP to me in the language of a five-year old”, I found myself musing on the reasons computing seems to stay stuck in the Middle Ages.

It is not for lack of great minds or vision. In fact, I have the impression, the problem seems to be that nobody ever seems to read anything. Why is that? Is there some kind of unspoken consensus that, since we are in the area of computing science which is soooo new and changing so rapidly, that anything older than 1 year should already be considered obsolete?

Let’s catalogue a few of the main misconceptions, shall we?

It is all about automation

Basically, this misconception is foremost in the minds of most people wrestling with IT in the context of business or society. We see computers as a kind of machine. A machine is seen as something that helps us, humans, do things. What things? Well, things we already did, such as computing (the mathematical kind), searching, manufacturing, accounting, writing.

If this is your underlying (and, usually, totally subconscious) assumption, then it is almost impossible to see the hidden treasures (and, yes, dangers, but we will come to that later). You live in a world that does not need to change, really. Or rather I should say: you do not need to change. Everything remains as it was, it is just that computers are doing some of it. You do the same things. It is the old Western metaphor of the inanimate world just being there to serve us, superior and in some ways detached, human beings. Computers, the internet, it’s all just machinery. It is like a steam engine or clockwork. More complex perhaps, but intrinsically the same.

Older than 1 year is irrelevant

We live in an era of change. At least that is the slogan. Constant change, and we are wrestling to keep up. As individuals, as enterprises. We are constantly introducing “new” ways of coping with those changes, we are officially adhering to the religion of change.

And since these changes are so ubiquitous, we can not rely on the past anymore. Past knowledge or experience no longer applies, so anything thought of in the past has become irrelevant.

Computing is an independent discipline

The blind men and the elephant (wall relief in Northeast Thailand)
The blind men and the elephant (wall relief in Northeast Thailand)

Well, for that matter, I have a feeling that any discipline is seen as an independent one.

Did any of you read Isaac Asimov’s book “Foundation”? Maybe not. The book started to take form in 1942. But it talked about a problem Asimov, as a biochemist, was acutely confronted with: the splintering of scientific disciplines akin to the blind men and the elephant. Each discipline functioning in a silo, and the scientific community endlessly repeating what other scientists have said earlier.

Ethics don’t really come into play

When I started studying physics and mathematics on the university of Utrecht, The Netherlands, I was shocked to find that I was the only student in my year taking on a parallel course in “Philosophy of Science”. I could not understand how my fellow students thought they could be effective scientists (I must admit, at the time my main ambition was to be a famous scientist) if they were not taking into account the broader view, in fact as broad as is feasible for a mere individual.

It’s about data

This is one of the misconceptions that I worry about most. It creates an endless stream of misery and problems (it’s too much, there are privacy concerns, and all this stuff about semantics, how to structure it, to name a few). Why is it about data? Or, still awful but slightly less so, about information? There is already too much information! (maybe you like my article on The Inversion of Big Data, or, about the undervalued distinction between data and information: Business Intelligence, an alternate definition)

The solution

The solution has been around for a long long time. Almost unnoticed, although not really because a malformed and drilled-down interpretation of it is what you currently see all around: personal computers are a direct offspring of one of the most misunderstood projects of the past century, done by the Learning Research Group at Xerox PARC.

A central concept that was realised by that group was something called a live domain. In fact this domain, which bootstrapped for the first time in October 1972, was not just live in the domain part, but everything was live: “turtles all the way down”: the operating system, the application development environment, even the compiler! Maybe the world is not yet mature enough to embrace that concept wholly, but a part of it is, and it is about time too.

That part is where the business logic or domain logic of the architecture lives.

Every architecture is wrestling with the problem of where to put the business functionality. Even how to discover that functionality is a problem, resulting in an endless stream of books purporting to offer help.

The centre of any logical architecture should be a simulation model of the organisation. What do I mean with a simulation model?

  1. It is executable and able to run independently from other components (such as a database or a front-end)
    1. “independently” is implemented by “connecting” those components with event publishing on state changes
  2. It “reflects” the real organisation (but there is something magical in the reflection: The Mirrored World)
  3. It is time-aware: changes of state are events on one or more timelines (time warp should be possible!). Every state is time-bound!

It is quite a different thing to have a simulation model instead of a reified data model, which is what almost every organisation currently has. Not even an information model, mind you, but a data model. It is left to the viewer, the user, through a handicapped tool called a front-end, to make something of the mess, hopefully approaching something that can be called information.

I will leave it up to the reader to come up with the infinite possibilities that will be exposed if you do this – I will come back to you on this in a later article. In the meantime: why did I show the picture above this article? Anyone?