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).
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 aeon.co, cell.com