The brain is (mostly) not a computer

I recently had my attention drawn to this essay from May 2016 – The Empty Brain – written by psychologist Robert Epstein (thanks Andrew). In it, Epstein argues that the dominant information processing (IP) model of the brain is wrong. He states that human brains do not use symbolic representations of the world and do not process information like a computer. Instead, the IP model is one chained to our current level of technological sophistication. It is just a metaphor, with no biological validity.

Epstein points out that no-one now believes that the human brain works like a hydraulic system. However, this was the dominant model of intelligence from 300 BCE to the 1300s. It was based on the technology of the times. Similarly, no-one now argues that the brain works like a telegraph. This model was popularised by physicist Hermann von Helmholtz in the mid 1800s. The IP model of the brain can be traced back to the mid 20th century. Epstein cites John von Neumann (mathematician) and George Miller (psychologist) as being particularly influential in its development. His conclusion is that it is as misguided as the hydraulic and telegraphy models of earlier times.

If Epstein is correct, his argument has significant implications for the world of artificial intelligence. If humans are not information processors, with algorithms, data, models, memories and so on, then how could computing technology be programmed to become artificially intelligent? Is it even possible with current computing architectures? (*) There has been no successful ‘human brain project’ so far using such a model. I’m convinced (as both a computer scientist and psychologist) that there never will be.

However, I disagree with what I interpret as Epstein’s (applied) behaviourist view of human intelligence. The argument that we act solely on combinations of stimuli reinforced by the rewards or punishment that follow has been thoroughly debunked (+). There is a difference between explaining something and explaining away┬ásomething. The behaviourist obsession with explaining away rather than attempting explanations of mental events is a serious blind spot to progress. As serious as the obsession with the IP model, to the exclusion of other possibilities, exhibited by many cognitive scientists.

Living together in perfect harmony on my bookshelf - some of the many psychological traditions.
Living together in perfect harmony on my bookshelf – some of the many psychological traditions.

Just because we can’t currently say how the brain changes in response to learning something, or how we later re-use this knowledge, doesn’t mean that the task will always be impossible. It certainly doesn’t mean that our brains don’t have biological analogues of memories or rules. Declarative and procedural knowledge exists, even if there isn’t a specific collection of neurons assigned to each fact or process we know.

Furthermore, the limits of our current understanding of brain architecture doesn’t invalidate the IP paradigm per-se – at least for partly explaining human intelligence. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. After all, blood circulates around the body – and brain – using hydraulics. This earlier model of how the brain functions therefore isn’t completely invalid – at least, at a low-level. It may therefore turn out that the IP model of intelligence is at least partly correct too.

Epstein finishes his essay by saying asserting “We are organisms, not computers. Get over it.” He’s right – up to a point. But the explanations (or explaining away) he offers are partial at best. Psychologists from all traditions have something to add to the debate about human intelligence. Discarding one approach solely on the grounds that it can’t explain everything that makes up human intelligence is just silly. And that’s something which Epstein definitely needs to get over.


(*) I asked the same question at the end of Brainchildren – Exploding robots and AI. I’m still not ready to answer it!

(+) For example, see Dennett’s essay Skinner Skinned in Brainstorms.

The Samsung whistle and cocktail parties

Yesterday, on a train traveling between London and Derby, I very nearly snapped. The reason? I had to listen to someone’s ‘phone constantly alerting them using the five notes that form the “Samsung whistle”. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an even more irritating noise than the Nokia tune made infamous by Dom Joly on Trigger Happy TV at the turn of the century.

The composer, Joongsam Yun, is quoted in a Guardian article from 2013 saying that the ringtone was designed to represent what customers think of the Samsung brand – innovative, friendly and trustworthy. Really. Well, I bet he’s not been stuck on a train for the best part of an hour and a half being force-fed the wretched thing tens and tens of times. I certainly wasn’t ascribing those particular values to Samsung by the time the train reached Leicester and the miscreant got off. Every time I thought I was going to get a few minutes peace to concentrate on a particularly tricky presentation that I’m trying to put together, my attention was completely disrupted by this truly appalling sound. Until it is banished from their equipment forever, I’m going to make a specific point of not buying anything (else) from them. (I’m looking at these words as I type them on a new Samsung monitor, so that threat is a little hollow at the moment as they’ve already had my cash).

In the end I gave up working on my presentation and thought instead about why the whistle seems to grab all of my attention every time I have the misfortune to hear it. Other ringtones don’t have this effect on me, so why is this one so intrusive?

Auditory attention is unlike visual attention as we don’t really have much of a choice about the sounds that reach our ears. If we don’t want to see something we can avert our gaze. That’s not possible with sounds – we can’t help but hear every noise in our immediate environment. However, our brains have evolved a clever trick which means that we can attenuate the sounds we don’t want to listen to and concentrate on the things we do want to hear. There are some neat psychological experiments which show that if two different stories are played through headphones, one into the right ear and one into the left, people have little difficulty in understanding and repeating the story they’ve been asked to follow, even if the experimenter switches the stories around between the ears part way through the task.

However, the story of auditory attention isn’t that simple. Imagine you’re talking to a group of friends and someone on the other side of the room says your name so that you can hear it. You weren’t expecting your name to be said, but your attention is immediately snapped away from the conversation you were having. Rather pleasingly, cognitive psychologists call this “the cocktail party effect”. One of the explanations for this is that because our name is a particularly important to us, when someone says it, even if we aren’t expecting it, our automatic systems take over and we can’t help but shift our attention away from what we were originally concentrating on. And of course, it’s not just hearing our name that can have this effect, but anything that is particularly salient to us.


So perhaps the “Samsung whistle” is, for some reason, particularly salient to me. The problem is, I really don’t buy that explanation. I don’t have a Samsung ‘phone, even if I did I’d never use that ringtone, and I’ve spent the last couple of years studiously trying to ignore the noise. It doesn’t mean anything to me at all.

It would seem to me that the “cocktail party effect” explanation therefore doesn’t apply here. I’ve no idea what psychological mechanism is at work, even having done a brief trawl of the literature this lunchtime.

But if someone could put me out of my misery and explain it to me, I’d give you my undivided attention while you did. Truly I would. Unless, of course, someone in the room had a Samsung ‘phone switched on.


From personnel selection and assessment to ergonomics

Last weekend saw me submit the second and final assignment for the Personnel Selection and Assessment (PSA) module. I can’t say that I’m sorry to see the end of this module (I’m not!), but I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll get a reasonable grade for it having had a very pleasing result on the first assignment.

Of the half-dozen compulsory modules on the Occupational Psychology MSc, PSA was the one that I was looking forward to the least. While it wasn’t anything like as bad as I’d feared and parts of it, just like the curate’s egg, were excellent, I did become rather frustrated by the constraints placed on me by the assignments. This was because that both of them had to be written as reports for a hypothetical managerial (and hence non-academic) audience.

Now, given that Occupational Psychology is an applied discipline, I do understand the need for us to be able to write assignments in this way. It’s a very useful skill to develop. However, (and yes, I can see the looks of complete incredulity on my undergraduate colleagues and tutors faces as I write this), it would have been very exciting to have had one (or even part of one) of the assignments as a traditional academic essay. This is because there is so much conflicting evidence about the best methods to use for selection and assessment – as well as so much bunkum about the topic that’s been written that just deserves to be, well, debunked.

Sadly, neither assignment was really able to let me go in this direction … because the last thing any manager reading a report wants is a debate. They need analysis, recommendations, conclusions and actions – so that’s what I produced!

Anyway, I’ve now moved onto the Ergonomics module. A quick skim through the unit material last night had me scrabbling around in the attic for my trusty OU Cognitive Psychology textbook this morning, as the links that the module makes to topics including attention, perception and memory was immediately obvious.

This afternoon, (I think that) I’ve managed to fight my way around the library catalogue with its myriad of logins, new windows, mysterious instructions, pages of allowances, charges and fines and issued the necessary incantations required to request the loan of a book on human factors engineering. The irony of my struggle in trying to request a book on how to create things that are easy to use wasn’t lost on me. I just hope that the right book turns up at the right place at around the time that I need it!

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 22nd March 2014.