Why do we need a new metaphor for the brain?

The metaphor of the brain-as-computer has dominated scientific study of the brain almost since the idea of “neuroscience” was invented. Why should we look to the internet as a new metaphor for studying how brains work?

We think of our brains as computers. This is no less the case for neuroscientists than for other everyone else. The computer metaphor has served us well. The explosion in knowledge about how brains work in recent decades has come in large part because researchers have approached the brain as a computing machine, one that performs mathematical manipulations, possesses memory allocations, and generally processes information in a way similar to a computer.

But there are brain functions that cannot be explained in reference to computing devices. In addition to computing, the brain is also a fantastically complex communication system. The thing about communication is that they operate on fundamentally different principles than those that govern computation.

For example, communication across a large network requires flexibility. It also exploits randomness and indeterminacy. And because a mass communication system spans a large area, it requires verification that messages arrive at their intended destinations. The internet has clever solutions to these and other challenges. It is time that we adopt the internet metaphor to guide the next phase of neuroscience research. The internet metaphor can help build better machine intelligence, and it can also help all of us utilize our brains more effectively.

An Internet in Your Head is a new book by computational neuroscientist Daniel Graham that lays out this argument in fine detail, and in a way accessible to anyone with an interest in brains.

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