How your brain is not like a computer

At the end of my last post, or the one before that, I had a late-night ‘inspiration’ that must have sounded a bit like an outburst about how our brains are not like computers. There’s lots of good reasons for making that assertion, whether or not it’s an outburst. But one of the key issues is concern about ’embodiment’ in cognitive science and the discussion of embodied cognition. Daniel, in his comments, put a link to the posting by Chris Chatham, 10 Important Differences Between Brains and Computers, which is excellent. There’s also an interesting discussion of this going on at Dr. Ginger Campbell’s blog on her Brain Science Podcasts, both of which (discussion and podcasts) I strongly recommend. See the first two topics on the list you can find here on ‘Artificial Intelligence.’

For the anthropologists in our audience, however, the term ’embodied cognition’ is a bit unfortunate, not because it’s not a great term, but because an earlier intellectual movement in anthropology already snagged the adjective ’embodied’ and then didn’t push the issue far enough to actually deal with physiological and biological dimensions of being embodied. That is, in anthropology, the term ’embodiment’ has not been allowed to really stretch its wings, and has instead been more narrowly constrained to dealing with phenomenological, interactional, and theoretical issues deriving primarily from feminism, Foucauldian post-structuralism, and Bourdieu-ian sociology. All of these streams are important, but they do not yet engage with the sort of material that cognitive scientists mean when they use the term ’embodied.’ The danger is that anthropologists will see the term, ’embodied cognition,’ and it will not seem quite as disruptive to anthropology-as-usual as it should be.

Chatham’s posting makes this key issue clearer in his tenth reason that brains are not like computers: brains have bodies:

This is not as trivial as it might seem: it turns out that the brain takes surprising advantage of the fact that it has a body at its disposal. For example, despite your intuitive feeling that you could close your eyes and know the locations of objects around you, a series of experiments in the field of change blindness has shown that our visual memories are actually quite sparse. In this case, the brain is “offloading” its memory requirements to the environment in which it exists: why bother remembering the location of objects when a quick glance will suffice? A surprising set of experiments by Jeremy Wolfe has shown that even after being asked hundreds of times which simple geometrical shapes are displayed on a computer screen, human subjects continue to answer those questions by gaze rather than rote memory. A wide variety of evidence from other domains suggests that we are only beginning to understand the importance of embodiment in information processing.

This point is especially important because many anthropological theories of ’embodiment’ posit exactly the opposite; that the body ‘internalizes’ a model or schema from the world. In fact, it seems that the brain-body relies upon the world to ‘store’ certain information, and so never bothers to internalize it or create a bodily analogy. Far from being analogous, the embodied brain and world are complementary, supporting each other through certain key forms of incompleteness. For example, many characteristics that emerge in the brain during the course of its development do so because of sensory input that will be reliably present in the environment. There’s no need to — and, in fact, no conceivable practical way that the forming organism could — store all necessary developmental information internally. And in perception, especially short term visual memory, the acuity and speed with which we can reference the world allows us to get by without very elaborate internal records of the visual field.

This quality of ’embodiment’ that brain scientists refer to — the internal minimalism with dependence on the external environment for scaffolding of perception — is the kind of quality that I think demands profound changes in the way that we understand enculturation in anthropology (and what ‘culture’ itself is). So much of contemporary anthropological theory makes unwarranted assumptions about the brain, without even realizing that it is doing so.

In addition, I feel I should just plug The Brain Science Podcasts again. I’ve finally tracked down a couple of the books on neuroplasticity that Dr. Campbell had podcasts on when I was traveling in the US (where books are WAY cheaper than here in Australia). Both books are excellent, and I will be posting on them repeatedly in the future, but I wouldn’t have known to look so hard had I not listened in on Dr. Campbell’s early discussion of neuroplasticity (Episode 10, on the book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, by Sharon Begley) and on her interview with Dr. Norman Doidge (Episode 26, on Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself). More about Norman Doidge at his website (here).

Both books are great, although I’m still reading Doidge’s. Dr. Campbell is too politic to say which she prefers. I found Begley’s much easier to read; it’s artful, engaging, and quick, as you’d expect from one of the best science writers around, and her discussion of a series of brain-science related meetings with the Dalai Lama will single-handedly change your mind if you’ve lost all hope about religious leaders and science. Dr. Doidge’s book is a bit rougher going, but it’s probably a richer load. There’s so much good stuff in there that it’s almost inevitable some chapters read like tangents. Although I don’t like the way that he brings in psychoanalytic concepts as if they had the same research-grounding as some of the neural mechanisms observed in brain imaging (something that Wexler does, too, in Culture and the Brain), his Appendix on the brain and cultural difference at the end is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject. It’s probably worth it to pick up the book just to read that appendix (including some of my favorite research on the eyes of children who are ‘sea gypsies’ adapting to underwater vision by Anna Gislén of Lund University). I’d probably recommend Begley to a general reader, and Dr. Doidge’s book to the kind of people who don’t necessarily read from first page to last, and mark up their books with a lot of stuff in the margins.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States, and look forward to a new project in New Zealand. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-edited several books, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

8 thoughts on “How your brain is not like a computer

  1. I really appreciate your mentioning the Brain Science Podcast.

    First, I would like to mention that the episode that is most relevant to to question of computers and embodiment is actually episode 25 where I interviewed Dr. Rolf Pfeifer about his book, “How the body shapes the way we Think.” In his book Dr. Pfeifer directly addresses the advantage of off-loading information onto the body, rather than maintaining a complex mental model. The example he often uses is the fact that walking involves the dynamic properties of our muscles, so that certain aspects of walking emerge from their elastic interaction with the world. His lab has created various “robots” whose ability to move arises totally from their interaction with the environment. They have no hard-wired model or algorithm for walking. In contrast, attempts to program robots to walk using complex mathematical models have been largely unsuccessful.

    With regards to the question of which book I prefer between Doidge’s and Begley’s, I definitely prefer Begeley’s. (I share your discomfort with psychoanalysis.) However, I think there are certain readers who would prefer Doidge’s book. Doidge’s book may have a broader appeal among certain groups, such as those who who might be put off by the fact that Begley’s book is based on a conference of scientists held by the Dalai Lama. There is quite a bit of overlap between the two books. While I prefer the way Begley organizes the material, those who prefer a more story-oriented approach may like Doidge’s. Both books seem very popular with fans of the Brain Science Podcast.

    Ginger Campbell, MD

  2. I have BI from an MVA on 81101. I believe that I have been gifted. The reason why I say gifted, is because, I believe that I have overcome the shear impossible, with an increase in the current knowlege that has been granted unto me. Some women once told me , “You might be as a dumb as a FOX:)
    I am currently writing a short, very short biography, titled “The Trials and Tribulations of Brain Injury Recovery”
    By Richard F. De Pol
    I hope that your day or night has gone by with happiness in your soul:)

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