Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Brains Don't Have to be Computers (A Purple Peril)

A common response to the claim that we are not information processors is that this simply cannot be true, because it is self-evidently the case that brains are transforming and processing information - they are performing computations. Greg Hickok throws this ball a lot, and his idea is clear in this quote from his book 'The Myth of Mirror Neurons':
Once you start looking inside the brain you can’t escape the fact that it processes information. You don’t even have to look beyond a single neuron. A neuron receives input signals from thousands of other neurons, some excitatory, some inhibitory, some more vigorous than others. The output of the neuron is not a copy of its inputs. Instead its output reflects a weighted integration of its inputs. It is performing a transformation of the neural signals it receives. Neurons compute. This is information processing and it is happening in every single neuron and in every neural process whether sensory, motor, or “cognitive.”
Hickok, pg 256.
There are two claims here. First, neurons are processing information because their input is not the same as their output; they are transforming the former into the latter. Second, this process is computational; 'neurons compute'.

This is a widely held view; psychologist Gary Marcus even wrote about this in the NYT saying 'Face it, your brain is a computer'. In response, Vaughn Bell at Mindhacks posted about this op-ed and this issue in a nicely balanced piece called 'Computation is a lens'. He sums up the issue nicely by asking 'Is the brain a computer or is computation just a convenient way of describing its function?'. The answer, I propose here, is that computation is a fantastically powerful description of the activity of the brain that may or may not be (and probably isn't) the actual mechanism by which the brain does whatever it does. This is ok, because, contra Hickok,  not every process that sits in between an input and a different output has to be a computational, information processing one