Does the Brain Work The Same Way a Computer Does? Maybe…maybe not.

Most models of how we process information and store it in long term memory (i.e. learn) depict the brain as being organized something like this:

Memory

We accept input through our sensory organs, move (some of) it into working memory, process it and store (some of) it in long term memory. Then, when we need to use what we’ve stored we retrieve it from long term memory, process it in working memory, perhaps modify it and then re-store it back into long term memory.

If you think about it just a little bit this should all seem pretty familiar: It’s very similar to how a computer works. The computer takes your input, processes it in its CPU (“working memory”) and stores it on a storage device (“long term memory”). At a future time you can then retrieve what you’ve stored, combine it with new input, modify it and re-store it.

Is the brain an organic computer? To be clear, I’m an educational psychologist, not a neuroscientist, so I have no evidence that this model is wrong — but I have always wondered about it. It always seemed rather reductionist to me. Or, put another way: I never understood why the brain should be organized like a computer.

So, I was recently interested to read about some research by a Princeton University neuroscientist, Uri Hasson. According to his theory, memory and processing are not separated in the brain. We do not have neurons specialized for processing and others specialized for memory. Each neural circuit in our brain can do both: store information and process information. This is what allows us to process new input and combine it with previously stored information at such an astonishing speed.

This makes a lot more sense to me but I think he is in a distinct minority at the moment. As we uncover more and more about how the brain is actually organized it will be interesting to see how all this is resolved.

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