…and over here…

Posted by on Mar 29, 2007 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments


Johnnie has spotted something that all of the attendees at our MRS session last week should read: Dave’s post on the difference between brains and computers.


Personally, I blame the psych faculties who let the info tech boys and girls raid their departments in the 60s and 70s. “Brain as computer” makes sense if you like the “human machine” metaphor (and was a big help to cog science early on); it’s just rather better at explaining what computers are not than what brains are.

Varela and Maturana
wrote brilliantly about this some 15 years ago.

They use the famous Submarine story to highlight the homeostatic nature of brains (self-managing/adjusting): imagine a submarine captain manages to raise his boat off the sea-bed, past the reef, dolphins and fishing boats and rise safely to surface.

His boss calls to say well done for successful maneouvre – avoiding all hazards and surfacing succesfully.

The submarine captain is grateful but a bit taken aback. You see he was born on the sub and has never seen the outside world. In fact, he doesn’t know that there is such a thing: he just manages the dials and and levers that key the needles on those dials in the right zones ie out of the red. That is his job, as he sees it.

And so it is with human brains. They don’t know that there’s an outside world. Nor are they even primarily designed for response to the stimulus we create for them (as a computer is). Instead, they respond, through body chemistry to the data they receive from the body (biochemical stimuli).

I just wish that more people bothered to read more of the science and not leap on the first thing that tells them what to do….(you know who you are…)

And yes, Johnnie, I’m also thinking about distributed intelligence when I read Dave’s post, too.

You and I just demonstrated one aspect of it…


  1. Alan
    March 29, 2007

    Mark, have you read ‘Our Inner Ape’ by Frans de Waal? Many comments you make remind me of anecdotes and findings of his. If you haven’t already i’m sure you’d enjoy it.

  2. Mark Earls
    March 30, 2007

    And a fine read it is, too. Some fantastic anecdotes to make the science come alive.

  3. ian
    March 30, 2007

    reminds me of Searle and his Chinese room…

  4. jordan 1
    October 29, 2010

    You blog is so lovely that speak the words right out my month. The familiar perspectives on this topic really calls for a drink. I bookmarkt you so that we can talk about it in details, see ya, pal!