There’s a reason you wake up every morning instead of booting up. And why you probably processed bites of cereal this morning, not bytes of data.
A few years ago, Rebecca Lawson at the University of Liverpool asked men and women from different backgrounds to draw a bicycle from memory. Simple, right?
Well, not only could the average person not draw a functionally accurate bicycle, but some of the contraptions they did draw were hilariously impractical. Most of these “bicycles” were missing fundamental parts, and many participants couldn’t even remember where the chain or pedals went.
So, why can so few people recall what something as basic as a bicycle looks like? Writing in Aeon, psychologist Robert Epstein from the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology has the answer: “We are organisms, not computers. Get over it.”
“For more than half a century,” he writes, “psychologists, linguists, [and] neuroscientists … have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.”
But this just isn’t the case. Our brains do not operate based on innate programming or create digital representations of stimuli. They lack memory buffers or long-term storage, and they don’t process via algorithms or “write” and “retrieve” data from neurons.
So why do scientists and journalists the world over still speak as if brains were computers? Artificial intelligence expert George Zarkadakis thinks it’s because we simply can’t wrap our heads around our heads. The mind is a mystery. So for thousands of years, we have employed metaphors to explain it. Human thought has been compared with fluids in an aqueduct, gears and springs in a clock, and telegraph wires on the prairie.
“Each metaphor,” writes Epstein, “reflected the most advanced thinking of the era … And predictably, just a few years after the dawn of computer technology … the brain was said to operate like a computer.”
Now, metaphors are fine. But here’s the problem: We’ve forgotten that all of this computer talk is metaphorical! Scientists have spent millions of research hours trying to grasp the human mind in crude, materialist terms. But we still have little idea how our minds work, or what role the brain plays in consciousness.
This brings us back to the bicycle experiment. The reason it’s so difficult to accurately draw an everyday object is because our brains don’t store copies of images the way computers do.
Epstein insists that no matter how long brain scientists look, they will “never find a copy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony” in the brains of musicians. You can certainly learn how to play a tune more accurately. But even then, you won’t have stored sheet music in your wetware. That is how computers work. But there’s no reason to think that’s how human brains work.
Rather, an emerging school of cognitive science suggests that we interact directly with our world, not by way of analogy, as a computer does. While computers can metaphorically catch a baseball using complex algorithms and trajectory calculations for weight, velocity, and wind speed, humans can just … catch it. But how?
The answer lies in what makes us infinitely superior to computers and other machines. We may not be able to draw bicycles on demand, but we can ride them—a task that still daunts robotic engineers. We are, as a poet long before the age of computers put it, “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Epstein and others may not mention the soul, but it’s evident that much more than the material world is at work in what they’re observing. We really don’t understand the brain, or the mind, or how they relate. And that’s okay. But if we want to progress in our understanding, let’s drop figurative language that trains us to think of ourselves as things, rather than as persons who bear the divine image.
Eric Metaxas is the bestselling author of “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy.” He is the radio host of “The Eric Metaxas Show” and the co-host of “BreakPoint.”
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.