It's not uncommon to hear people talk about their brains in computer terms. "I'm crashing." "I need to reboot." "I'm processing." "That's just how I'm programmed." It's not just a casual linguistic motif, either — it's also been one of the main metaphors used by neuroscientists in discussing the functions of those wrinklymeat wads in our skulls. On the surface, it certainly makes sense; it doesn't hurt, either, that there's a sort of symbiotic relationship between the ways we talk about our brains as computers, and about computer intelligence as our brains.
But what if it's not just a feedback loop — what if it's a bad metaphor to begin with? Computational neuroscientist (and long-time BoingBoing reader!) Daniel Graham has a different idea, that actually might make even more sense after our year of isolation: what if our brains are actually like the internet?
This is the topic of Graham's upcoming book, An Internet in Your Head: A New Paradigm for How the Brain Works, which comes out on May 4:
The brain is not like a single computer―it is a communication system, like the internet. Both are networks whose power comes from their flexibility and reliability. The brain and the internet both must route signals throughout their systems, requiring protocols to direct messages from just about any point to any other. But we do not yet understand how the brain manages the dynamic flow of information across its entire network. The internet metaphor can help neuroscience unravel the brain's routing mechanisms by focusing attention on shared design principles and communication strategies that emerge from parallel challenges. Highlighting similarities between brain connectivity and the architecture of the internet can open new avenues of research and help unlock the brain's deepest secrets.
An Internet in Your Head presents a clear-eyed and engaging tour of brain science as it stands today and where the new paradigm might take it next. It offers anyone with an interest in brains a transformative new way to conceptualize what goes on inside our heads.
I've read some of Graham's book, and it just … makes sense. I used to think about habit-building as a way to free up the RAM in my own mind, but Graham's approach takes it a step further: it's like automating a cloud backup, so that I don't have to fill up my own hard drive in the first place.
As Graham points out in a recent column for Psychology Today, there's actually something dangerous in the implications of the over-simplified computer metaphor:
When something goes wrong on your laptop, the first response of most IT professionals to any problem is "try a reboot." It's a cliché for a reason: It often does solve the problem. And when your computer's problems are especially bad, an effective but drastic solution is often to "wipe" the memory and reinitialize the machine.
We may be tempted to desire a similarly clean and effective solution in our lives. In the mid-twentieth century, "electroshock" or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was conceived as a way to shock the computer-brain into a pure, error-free state. Today, the procedure is regularly characterized as a kind of hard "restart" for the mind. In rare and otherwise intractable cases of depression and other conditions, ECT can sometimes be effective. But it is neither viable nor useful for the vast majority of people.
He also points to the tragic story of Phil Kennedy, a neurologist who tried to install an experimental Robot-style brain-computer interface in his head, which ended up horribly backfiring. As Graham writes:
Beyond the utter recklessness of unnecessary brain surgery, there are so many other problems with brain-computer interfaces. What happens when your brain port becomes obsolete? The lifecycle of any stand-alone digital technology is, if you're lucky, a decade or two. (Laserdiscs, anyone?) The same will undoubtedly be true for brain ports and the software they require. […]
Your brain can't be upgraded like a computer because it is not a computer. It is much more than that.
Graham goes on to explain how even our memory doesn't work like a computer hard drive. There's no lossless file retrieval in nested folder archives, but rather, compressed data spread across various external associations, whether that's our sense of hearing, or smell, or Instagram, or the tags at the bottom of a BoingBoing post.
Now if only there was anti-viral software for our heads, to make sure that we're downloading all the right things.
An Internet in Your Head: A New Paradigm for How the Brain Works [Daniel Graham / Columbia University Press]
Do You Really Need a Brain "Upgrade"? [Daniel Graham, PhD / Psychology Today]