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March 2, 2005

the computer as a metaphor for the brain

Last Friday, some colleagues and I discussed a very strong paper by Joe Oppenheimer et al. that bridged rational choice theory and cognitive psychology. The authors of the paper (and the texts they quoted) said that memories are "stored," "linked," "tagged," "called up," and "retrieved" by the brain. These metaphors have come originally from various domains of human activity. (I suppose that shopkeepers store things, dogs retrieve things, and archaeologists tag things--to name just a few uses). However, the proximate source for all these words, obviously, is computer programming. Without thinking twice about it, we use the computer as an analogy for the human brain. This analogy can be illuminating, but we must be careful to remember that it is not literal. Brains are like today's computers in some respects, but not in many others. It struck me that in John Locke's day, the main metaphor for the brain was painting: i.e., representation of sense-data on flat surfaces. Painting was a very advanced technology in 1700--better than it is today. But it was an imperfect metaphor for cognition, and so is computing in our era.

March 2, 2005 10:47 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


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