Brain myths #6: Your brain is like a computer

6. Brains are like computers.

Smithsonian: 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. Descartes compared the brain to a hydraulic machine. Freud likened emotions to pressure building up in a steam engine. The brain later resembled a telephone switchboard and then an electrical circuit before evolving into a computer; lately it’s turning into a Web browser or the Internet. These metaphors linger in clichés: emotions put the brain “under pressure” and some behaviors are thought to be “hard-wired.”

RapidChange Group: The most important way your brain and a computer are different is this: A computer can only think in a series of “yes” and “no” questions. The human brain can deal with many different inputs, options and possibilities simultaneously. The difference is the one between your dog, who is binary and thus can see in black & white and handle “yes” and “no” but not “maybe” and you, who can see in multiple colors and deal with “maybe” all the time. The computer is a really fast version of your dog. But it is still a dog.

Here’s another way to think about it: What is between Black & White? Most people instinctively say “Gray.” For humans, the full spectrum of color exists between Black (= full saturation of color) and White (= complete absence of color). This difference translates into how we go about solving problems. If we see every issue as binary, we limit our options to Black, White and Gray. In fact, most challenges have a full spectrum of possible answers.

By relying on the analogy of physics and computers, we have greatly limited our ability to creatively solve problems. It is time to start looking at the world through the lens of biology – multiple possibilities, infinite creativity.

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