The article will answer how the human brain is like a computer. The article will also highlight various perspectives and analogies put forth by scientists to understand the human brain. In the end, we also discuss some frequently asked questions about the brain.
How is the Human Brain Like a Computer?
To begin the article, we must understand that the human brain is not like a computer, but a biological organ. It helps us in mediating messages from the environment to the body, and vice versa. It does not give “commands” to the body as the computer does.
The problems in the brain are usually traced to the whole body, and not necessarily the malfunctioning brain, however, in computers, the malfunction is usually detected in the CPU. The brain cannot be separated from the body like different parts of the computer can be.
However, there have been abstractions made that the brain performs computations like a computer. The analogy between the brain and computers dates back to the early days when computers were introduced. John von Neumann authored ‘The Computer and the Brain’ (1957). Von noted several similarities and differences between how the brain and computers function.
However, other scientists went further to draw ideas about electrical neural circuitry and theories about how the brain encodes and stores information. This led many investigators to believe that there are similarities between how the brain functions when compared with computers.
The main goal of people who believe the brain is similar to computers is to make the best level of artificial intelligence possible, to make it possible to repair and remake the brain, and even store or preserve human brains forever.
Jasanoff suggests that only half of all the brain cells in the brain are neurons, the others are glial cells. Glia cells also outnumber the neurons in the cerebral cortex by a factor of 10 to 1.
In fact, brain disorders such as multiple sclerosis, concussions, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and some cancers are caused by the malfunctioning of glial cells and don’t have anything to do with neurons. Trying to understand the brain without taking these facts into consideration can be detrimental and problematic.
The brain works with 20 watts. The human brain generates around 23 watts of power, which is enough to power a lightbulb (Attwell & Iadecola, 2002).
This power calls for the need for rest. Good sleep helps in maintaining the pathways in the brain. Sleep deprivation can increase the accumulation of a protein in the brain which is linked with Alzheimer’s disease.
The brain consists of brain cells called neurons that are responsible for processing and transmitting information in the brain, and from the body to the brain and vice versa. In order to communicate with each other, neurons in the brain use electrical as well as chemicals known as ions. Ions are electrically charged particles that enable neurons to communicate with each other.
Neurons are thus said to have electrochemical signs consisting of both electrical and chemical charges. These charges change on the basis of whether the neuron is on rest or is active. When the neuron is active, it is either sending a message or receiving it (Furber, 2012).
Neurons consist of fluids inside them that contain ions. These ions either have a positive or a negative charge. When at rest, the neuron consists of more negative ions on the inside and positive ions on the outside.
This gives its membrane a negative charge. Whenever there is a signal of brain activity, positive ions rush through the channels into the neuronal membrane. When the charge is strong enough, it starts sending signals to nearby neurons to communicate with them.
Thus, according to Jasonoff, the brain is just like the rest of the body. It is not a hardware or has software components. According to him, there is absolutely no difference between a mental event and a physical event.
The Brain’s Memory Capacity versus Computers
In essence, we can hold about 300 years of memory in our brain. Hence, virtually there is no limit to the amount of information we can store and remember. It does sound strange when considering that we forget a lot of information on a daily basis, however, it is true that our storage capacity for learning is essentially limitless.
The human brain’s capacity for memory is equivalent to trillions of bytes of information. A study at Stanford found that our cerebral cortex alone has the space to hold 125 trillion synapses. Another study found that one synapse in the human brain can hold up to 4.7 bits of information.
Neurons are brain cells that make up the brain. Neurons are responsible for transmitting messages that they carry to the brain from the body and vice versa. Synapses bridge the gap between the neurons in the brain and help them carry the messages to be transmitted.
Hence, if there are 125 trillion synapses in the human brain, and one synapse can carry an average of 4.7 bits of information, then we can say that the human brain’s memory capacity equals 1 trillion bytes or 1 TB.
If we compare our brain to the television, this would be equivalent to holding 3 million hours’ worth of TV shows. Moreover, we’d have to let the TV run continuously for over 300 years to run out of 2.5 petabytes worth of storage.
Computers have a limited capacity of memory available to them, and it cannot exceed that. However, human brains can never “get full”, this is because the human brain is very sophisticated. In order to make space for new information, old information is pushed out of the system instead of just cramming and crowding information in.
Differences Between the Brain and Computer In Regards With Memory
Learning New Information Leads to Physical Changes in Your Brain Structures
An interesting finding suggests that when we learn new skills such as a musical instrument or a new language, it creates physical changes in our brain. This is because these activities are similar to exercising for our brain.
These findings have been suggested through studies that have used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), where scientists are enabled to visualise these changes by comparing visuals before and after learning takes place.
This means that, when we learn new skills, it does not just lead to increased blood flow in special brain areas, but also structural changes in the white and grey matter, changes considered to be long-lasting!
This is not possible with computers. In fact, computers can run out of memories, they do not snow physical changes in their hardware or software when more information is added.
We can sometimes remember events that did not take place. False memory is a concept that was studied by Loftus, who found that participants tended to falsely report events that did not take place in the first place.
Loftus and Palmer (1974) presented participants with videos of traffic accidents of various time ranges in random order. Participants were first asked to give their own account of the incident and were then interrogated with a critical question that enquired about the speed of the vehicles that collided.
Speed of the vehicle had marked variations in the phrasing of the questions, that is, the use of verbs like smashed, bumped, collided and contacted in the questions influenced the report of the event they originally witnessed.
Loftus and Palmer in this study gave two interpretations of these findings suggesting that participants either faced “Responder Bias” – that is they altered their responses to be in line with the question however, their perception was not distorted – or they experienced alteration of memory altogether.
To determine that the participant’s memory demonstration of the events was in fact altered to the degree their perception of the event changed, Loftus and Palmer followed up with another experiment and enquired about a detail – broken glass when the cars collided – that was not visible in the original video.
Participants reported the presence of broken glass on higher than chance levels thus providing evidence that post-event information can not only distort memory but also induce false memories in humans. (Loftus & Palmer, 1974)
Evidence that post-event information can induce high levels of false memory, however, has also been reported in cases where experimental participants were asked to summarise specific details of an event rather than the entire event.
Small details of the event are highly susceptible to misleading post-event information such that the participants were more likely to misattribute such suggested items to originally presented videos. (Lane et al., 2001)
Again, computers are incapable of forming false memories. This phenomenon is completely unique to humans.
The article answered how the human brain is like a computer. The article also highlighte various perspectives and analogies put forth by scientists to understand the human brain. In the end, we also discuss some frequently asked questions about the brain.
Frequently Asked Questions: How is the Human Brain Like a Computer?
Why don’t we remember being born?
The hippocampus is involved in the formation and maintenance of memory for both facts and events. When we are born and are in our early childhood, the hippocampus is not fully grown and functioning and thus the memory of birth is likely to be forgotten.
How much information can the brain’s conscious mind handle at once?
The conscious mind can process upto 40 to 120 bits of information per second, depending upon the level of arousal, the extent of selective attention, the amount of sleep received, etc.
How fast can the human brain think?
According to some estimates, the human brain can experience sensory stimuli presented to it in as less than 50 milliseconds. 50 milliseconds is one-twentieth of a second. However, scientists do believe that our brain can in fact respond to information briefer than this, information that lasts for less than a quarter of a millisecond.
Attwell, D., & Iadecola, C. (2002). The neural basis of functional brain imaging signals. Trends in neurosciences, 25(12), 621-625.
Furber, S. (2012). To build a brain. IEEE spectrum, 49(8), 44-49.
Lane, S. M., Mather, M., Villa, D., & Morita, S. K. (2001, November). How events are reviewed matters: Effects of varied focus on eyewitness suggestibility. Memory & Cognition, 29(7), 940-7. doi: 10.3758/BF03195756
Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction : An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory’. JOURNAL OF VERBAL LEARNING AND VERBAL BEHAVIOR, 13, 585-589.