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An article published by Aeon, entitled The Empty Brain by Robert Epstein,  has generated a fair amount of controversy.  Right beneath the title are these two sentences:

Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.

The purpose of the article seems to be to denounce the aptness of using a computer as an analogy for a brain. And what Epstein does in the article then is explain how the terms “process information,” “retrieve knowledge,” and “store memories,” apply differently to brains and computers.

In some ways, it’s perfectly obvious that our brains don’t work like computers.  If our brains were actually more like computers, it would suggest that every student in every classroom in every school in every state in the U.S. and around the world should be perfectly capable of storing and retrieving whatever “information” is presented to them. That’s what computers do.  That’s not what students do. Our brains are not computers.

Still it’s hard to give up on the idea that brains process information. Our brains do something with the information they receive (in the form of sensory stimuli) from the outside world. They don’t create an exact image or replica of what they experience.  If you doubt this, pull out a piece of paper and, without opening your wallet or your piggy bank, draw a penny from memory.  You will likely have something that resembles a penny very poorly.  Yet something has happened with the input that allows a picture of some kind, that might be recognized as a penny by others, to be drawn.

And it would certainly be difficult for most of us to given up on the idea that our brains store memories. The fact that we can retell the story of Little Red Riding Hood and that someone else can recognize, suggests something that we might as well call memory as anything else.  It is not video recording that can be played back. But the brain has done something.

In fact, our brains are not empty (nor does Epstein actually say they are). They are composed of about 80-100 billion neurons (cells).  Neurons communicate with each other at junctures called synapses. When we experience something, neurons in our brains are activated and send each other signals, When they are activated repeatedly, it increases the likelihood that they will be reactivated again. When we remember something (retrieve a memory), the network of neurons is reactivated.  It’s not a precise process and our memories can change over time, based on new experiences. In that way, it is certainly different from what a computer does, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t be said to store memories or retrieve them.  We just don’t do it the way a computer does it. Or perhaps better to say that computers don’t do it the way we do. Since humans started creating and retrieving memories long before computers existed.

We would rephrase Epstein’s two sentences this way.  Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories the way a computer does.  In short, your brain is not a computer.  And until you understand how your brain does learn and develop, your efforts to teach or learn, will be only modestly effective, at best, and counterproductive at worst.






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