In the 1960s, a “cognitive revolution” occurred in psychology whereby the computer metaphor for brain function was introduced. Think of this metaphor as a simplified way of understanding how the brain works or an attempt to make sense of something we don’t understand. Unfortunately, metaphors can misrepresent what truly occurs in the brain because they over-simplify. Previous metaphors had attempted to compare the brain to different types of fluids, a wax tablet, a book, a complex machine or a telephone switchboard, which were all off-base.
As the computer model evolved over time, neural networks were introduced that could be linked based upon meaning or concepts (semantic network) or a pattern of activation (connectionist model). The idea of cortical columns as a functional unit in the brain appeared to explain how neurons connect and work together. Columns were described as microcircuits within the brain, although there was not conclusive evidence for their existence. In any event, a metaphor you may hear about in the future will be based on columns- the “stack” or collection of different pieces of software that are used together to accomplish a task.
What is lacking in the computer metaphor for the brain? The first and most important aspect many researchers believe is missing is the role of emotions and motivations. Furthermore, the uniqueness of each person’s experience contributes to the structure of their brain, particularly how the billions of neurons are interconnected. Perhaps it is best to think of the brain as a living organism rather than a hard-wired computer or data center. Several researchers feel the computer metaphor is holding back brain research and future advances in understanding how our minds work. They believe if we make computers function like the brain actually works, they eventually will be a good metaphor.
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