Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.
– Robert Epstein
It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true.
– J.B.S. Haldane (geneticist)
I’ve asked this question elsewhere on this blog– does Thought itself actually exist somehow in the brain? What about when we ‘store’ memories, for instance? Isn’t your brain just like a computer with a memory bank? To discover the true nature of the brain, efforts have been made to liken it to a kind of supercomputer, a metaphor which has been quite persuasive among some scientists. However, a computer – any computer – is really just a very elaborate adding machine. (Even when it’s streaming videos from the Internet.) What computers cannot do is reflect, to ‘see’ and understand something intuitively ‘right’ at any given moment. They cannot become conscious, as we are, despite the ambitions of some modern neuroscientists and all of the nonsense about a future populated with AI. (If they ever invent a robot that actually gets one of my jokes, only then will I start to worry.) Some experts are not at all convinced by the brain-computer-memories analogy, and on the Smithsonian Institution website Laura Helmuth writes that:
‘We speak of the brain’s processing speed, its storage capacity, its parallel circuits, inputs and outputs. The metaphor fails at pretty much every level: the brain doesn’t have a set memory capacity that is waiting to be filled up; it doesn’t perform computations in the way a computer does; and even basic visual perception isn’t a passive receiving of inputs because we actively interpret, anticipate and pay attention to different elements of the visual world. There’s a long history of likening the brain to whatever technology is the most advanced, impressive and vaguely mysterious.’1
Indeed, the comparison between brains and computers soon breaks down. The rather clumsy analogy is of an input/output system – we respond to phenomena in our environment through the senses, and the brain translates the signal into conscious experience. (This is the assumption, at least) Similarly, we input data on a computer keyboard, and the operating system ‘translates’ our keystrokes into its own machine-level language – binary numbers – the only language your computer understands. (But the machine has also been programmed to feed back to us via symbols we can understand – words, pictures, numbers.) The memory chip in your computer is an integrated circuit that contains transistors and capacitors. With DRAM (dynamic random access memory) the capacitor is like a tiny container (the ‘memory bank’) storing the information (1’s and 0’s). The ‘bank’ contains atomic particles (electrons) and to signal a 1, the ‘bank’ is filled; 0, and it’s emptied.
Hence, there’s a physical circuitry enabling impulses to be processed and read: a real ‘memory bank. But, we humans are far more complicated than this. Human memory has been metaphorically described as a data bank on which we draw to recall the past, as if it were a filing cabinet whose records can be retrieved. But where is it? No one has ever found it inside someone’s head – and don’t think neuroscientists haven’t tried! One theory is that the brain recovers various bits of information to ‘reconstruct’ a particular experience. If we picture an object – say, an apple – the brain recalls the name ‘apple’, remembers its shape, smell, colour, or the sound made when you bit into it.
Supposedly, each of these memories derive from a different brain region, and the whole image of our apple is ‘reassembled’ from them. It thus works like a retrieval system. But here we run into logical problems – how does it know just where to look? What kick-starts the process in the first place? Something must inform this imaginary system, and to be successful it would need its own set of memories to refer to. What could put them there in the first place? One analogy might be an anti-virus scanner on your computer. This works using ‘signatures’ that enable the program to identify possible malware. If it finds a component of the operating system with this identifying mark, your anti-virus will alert you or remove it. Of course, you’ve had to update the program first – it has to have something to refer back to, its own checklist of signatures. How can this happen with a memory retrieval system inside your head? Doesn’t the whole idea now sound a little preposterous?
Unlike the memory bank in your computer, memories actually ‘stored’ in your brain are hard – if not impossible – to explain. Indeed, all the experiments designed to locate memory literally within the brain have proved negative. American physiologist Karl Lashley failed to discover precisely ‘where’ the memory was ‘stored’. Neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (in the 1950’s) – when treating epilepsy patients – had grazed parts of the cerebral cortex with an electrode and the result was stupefying – his patients reported a flood of vivid memories or the ‘presence’ of music they took to be actually in the room. This looked promising, and these electrically induced memories – so Penfield thought – were perhaps a result of his probing the ‘memory centres’. But in his last book, The Mystery of the Mind, even Penfield abandoned the idea that they were literally stored inside the cortex of the brain There was no ‘complete record’ there, as he had once supposed.
SCIENCE AND MEMORIES
So where does this leave us? Are there any good scientific arguments against the idea that memories live in your head? It so happens there is, one based on the phenomenon of Molecular Turnover. Put simply, it means that if memories were actually contained inside brain cells, you wouldn’t be able to remember what happened years ago, simply because the molecules would no longer exist! This was nicely summed up by the American computational neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski:
“I have been puzzled by my ability to remember my childhood even though most of the molecules in my body today are not the same ones I had as a child—in particular the molecules that make up my brain are constantly being replaced with newly minted molecules—despite this molecular turnover, I have detailed memories of places where I lived fifty years ago.”2
‘In the human molecule, the turnover rate of atoms in the body is 98%, meaning that every year, the typical person acquires nearly a complete set of the 26-elements that comprise the person.’3
Shouldn’t this destroy the notion that memories (which is what most thoughts are) do not reside in the brain? The research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, Robert Epstein, is certainly in no doubt and has commented eloquently on this matter: ‘The idea, advanced by several scientists, that specific memories are somehow stored in individual neurons [brain cells]is preposterous; if anything, that assertion just pushes the problem of memory to an even more challenging level: how and where, after all, is the memory stored in the cell? 4
Where, indeed? Since that question cannot be answered by materialists it leads us to speculate that Mind is a completely different phenomenon from the brain, one that transcends the space between our ears. The New Thought author, William Walker Atkinson, put it like this back in 1906: ‘The secret of the production of Thought does not lie in the Brain or nervous system, which are but the material substratum upon which the Mind works, and which it uses as a mold or matrix for the production of Thought.5 The more modern equivalent comes from Simon Berkovich, Professor of Engineering and Applied Science in the Department of Computer Science at George Washington University: ‘The brain is merely a transmitter and receiver of information, but not the main place for storage or processing of information (i.e., memories)’.6
I end with a summary from Professor Rupert Sheldrake from his 2003 book, The Sense of Being Stared At:
‘Educated people have been brought up to believe that their minds [hence, memories] are located inside their heads, and that all their perceptions and experiences are somehow concentrated in their brains … The theory that the mind is in the brain is a dogma accepted on the authority of science, and most people never think of questioning it. Few are even aware that it is a theory at all, and accept it as the scientific truth.’ 7
1. Helmuth, ‘Top Ten Myths About the Brain’ – Smithsonian.com, May 20, 2011.
2 Thims, Libb. (2007). Human Chemistry (Volume One) (pg. 121). Morrisville, NC: LuLu. http://www.eoht.info/page/Turnover+rate
5. Dynamic Thought Or The Law Of Vibrant Energy – William Walker Atkinson The Segnogram Publishing Company Los Angeles, California, 1906
6- Berkovich, S. (n.d.) “A Scientific Model Why Memory Aka Consciousness Cannot Reside Solely In The Brain,” retrieved October 25,2007, fromhttp://www.nderf.org/Berkovich.htm.
7. Sheldrake, Rupert, The Sense of Being Stared At, Hutchinson 2003
Illustration: ‘Mr Pipo’ by Nevit Dilmen (Creative Commons License)