August 31, 2021

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Is your brain a computer?

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But perhaps what brains and computers do is fundamentally the same, even if the architecture is different. “What the brain seems to be doing is quite aptly described as information processing,” says Megan Peters, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine. “The brain takes spikes [brief bursts of activity that last about a tenth of a second] and sound waves and photons and converts it into neural activity—and that neural activity represents information.”

Richards, who agrees with Cobb that brains work very differently from today’s digital computers, nonetheless believes the brain is, in fact, a computer. “A computer, according to the usage of the word in computer science, is just any device which is capable of implementing many different computable functions,” says Richards. By that definition, “the brain is not simply like a computer. It is literally a computer.”

Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, echoes that sentiment. “There’s a more broad concept of what a computer is, as a thing that takes in information and manipulates it and, on that basis, chooses outputs. And a ‘computer’ in this more general conception is what the brain is; that’s what it does.”

But Anthony Chemero, a cognitive scientist and philosopher at the University of Cincinnati, objects. “What seems to have happened is that over time, we’ve watered down the idea of ‘computation’ so that it no longer means anything,” he says. “Yes, your brain does stuff, and it helps you know things—but that’s not really computation anymore.”