Brain is not a computer!

I found this excellent article on Aeon.

It is highly recommended for anyone who is interested in the subject of neuroscience and philosophy. As disparate these subjects might be, there is a necessary connection. Finding this connection is crucial in deciphering the most fundamental questions regarding both the subjects - what is the purpose of these disciplines. Perhaps more importantly, where will these disciplines take us as a species?

We live in a world where doing science is as normal as it can get. Sure, lot of people have reservations about extending scientific insights into their private lives - especially the religious sphere. At the same time, it doesn’t desist us from indulging in the comforts that scienfitic progress brings in. This dichotomy is not something I wish to resolve. My concerns here are about the way abstractions can influence the concrete outputs of research.

One key takeaway from the article is the way this model has aspired our perception of the future. Such things like ‘Brain supercomputers’ and ‘Brain machine direct links’ doesn’t render readily under the current understanding about the Human brain. However, by resorting to this archaic abstraction, investors are readily convinced about the possibility. While genuine scientific and technological progress could flow out of these endeavours, I am quite concerned about the duplicity (perhaps unintended) involved in the whole process.

Leaving that aside, the cognitive baggage such a model brings into philosophy is immense. While many philosophers doesn’t burden themselves with the physical limitation of Human brain, doing so has many real advantages. It adds a new dimension to our thinking process and limits the scope of mystic manoeuvres. Also, such things as letting go of the concept of memory as a ‘retrieving mechanism’ also brings in profound insights. The chemical storage system of brain makes sense on the temporal domain as well. That is, if we are to remove a certain brain state from the time frame where it is operating, it doesn’t make much sense!

So even if we faithfully emulate the bio-chemical system as well as state of Human brain in some physical system, it doesn’t give us much information without a time series accompanying it. Without the life history of a person, including her chemical signature, we cannot ‘read’ a brain per se. There is one more consideration that we should take here.

Our channels of information acquisition are incredibly lossy as much as noisy. Our eyes are evolved to pick up only those things we need to see. The ears too, cut out information when you are thinking deep. Even the nose shuttles more information while cooking and eating than otherwise. So there is a real bias in admitting information. On the top of it, the brain ‘takes in’ only part of this information for ‘storage’. The article demonstrates this fact through the dollar bill experiment. Think about this - most of us can recognise a dollar bill even if we see only a tip of it sticking out of a book. This adds a contextual dimension to the memory. What we know as dollar bills are spread across our idea of currency, different denominations, concept of money as a medium of exchange and the general idea of its design etcetera. This allows us to recognise a Nigerian naira as a currency note, even when we haven’t seen one before. This isn’t information processing at action, but something else.

The role of probabilistic selection in the functioning of brain is perhaps more important than we think. Isn’t it mind blowing that a pigeon can outperform us in a Monty Hall problem?

If that is not enough, we have many instances of (perhaps faulty) probabilistic weighing in decision making. We certainly need deeper studies into this domain. And solving those problems need fundamental rethinking. As an anthropologist, I favour the inclusion of evolutionary characteristics into this. The effect of evolutionary pressures in the probabilistic operation of our brains need better evaluation. Probability, seems to play a significant role in perception. I use the world perception and not ‘information storage’ or ‘analysis’ because fundamentally, it all boils down to how your brain perceives a certain situation. We may be led to believe that our brain is analysing something through information processing while solving a physics problem, but in reality it is weighing down and choosing between alternate paths of action possible. We may be lacking the granularity here, but deciphering this situation has immense consequences on ‘understanding’ the human brain. May be, it will help us make sense of behavioural science, including that of economics, politics, personal and crowd psychology, propaganda etc. Superposing such a model with the currently existing “neural network” and perceptron models should help us.

Another insight is about the importance of shedding abstractions and models presented to us on a platter. Irrespective of our fields of action, it is important to go back to the basics and invest on strong fundamentals by weeding out untenable abstractions - even the most entrenched and historically accepted. This is well accepted by the scientific community, but the fact that many abstractions still hang around points back to the chinks in our reptile brain. Science may take a bit more to confirm it, but any pandering politician will know it better - that biases are the norm against an occassional exception.

Written on January 30, 2019