The question has arisen of whether the brain or the computer is superior. The brain has the capabilities to drive a complex organism while learning new information constantly as well as applying it to the future. Computers are super-fast in today’s time and can out perform any human being in complex calculations as well as having as much memory as can be created in a factory. However, the brain has the advantage of being organic and able to withstand damage while recovering to perform just as well as pre-trauma, and in rare cases, better.
The human brain and its abilities and disabilities to process data and information are unmatched. What appears to be a random mass of fatty tissue actually contains your every thought, experience, and memory, and it takes in every flicker of light, whisper of sound, or other small detail. So can computers do it any better?
The entire process of data processing occurs within one second. The sensory organs that cover your body intake information pertaining to the environment and transmit the data to the brain. These units are the eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and skin, which house a variety of receptors that do the actual work. Receptors are usually molecules attached to the cellular membranes of these sensory organs and are activated by their respective target. By releasing ions into the surrounding medium, an electrochemical signal containing data from the surroundings is sent to the brain.
Due to recent technological advances, computers have sped up significantly. Google searches the entire Internet in just over a quarter of a second, and newer microprocessors in central processing units can theoretically perform 40 billion operations per second. Obviously, computers have the edge on speed.
Data processing is once again very different between computers and the brain. Once the message reaches the brain, the concurrent section of sensory cortex, the outside layer of the brain, must first translate it, then data processing occurs in what is known as the limbic system. It is comprised of several structures in the center of the brain: the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, corpus callosum, and others. These serve to find patterns, recognize familiarities, and commit information to short-term and long-term memory. The limbic system is regarded as the closest thing to an emotional center of the brain.
While the brain is very complex and subjective, computers are the opposite. Computers follow strict paths to calculate specific values that are completely objective.
One of the defining characteristics of the brain is its localization of functions, the most prevalent example being the dichotomy between the right and left hemispheres of the cerebrum. In these images, the differentiation of the logical left side and the creative right side is shown.
The most renowned and successful case of separation of the hemispheres was Kim Peek, the inspiration for Rain Man. These series of clips from Kim’s biographical documentary, The Real Rain Man, help explain his mental capacities and their unmatched capabilities. Kim’s disorder is the lack of a corpus callosum.
(Logistically, if the clips all start at the same time in the video, the ideal start times for each portion are 23:27, 10:08, and 31:31 respectively)
He could read two pages of a book at a time, recall information he had read once years prior, and make connections between seemingly unrelated topics within seconds. He can also perform complex calculations instantaneously while still managing to be charismatic and inspiring.
However, his extraordinary abilities come at a cost. His memory is so precise and literal that he cannot process figurative and metaphorical phrases.
Kim’s deficiency in conceptual thinking reiterates the theory that different parts of the brain house different processes that increase efficiency. While allowing discrete aspects of cognition and personality to perform at maximum potential, the connection between the two halves allows cooperation in processing complex tasks that require reasoning and creativity.
Technology processes all information the same. There is no localization of function, only what can be considered a very sophisticated sausage grinder that intakes data and chugs out more data. Also, there is very little room for error in a computer. If a computer happened to be split in half like Kim Peek’s brain, I highly doubt it would continue to perform calculations or recall information.
Cooperation of the two sides of the brain is often unequal. This can lead to diverse trains of thought among people, influencing ideas, actions, and culture.
People often refer to themselves as “left-brain or right-brain dominant.” This condition is for the most part true. Everyone approaches problems differently due to how his or her brain is wired. Those that consider themselves left-brain are often more calculating, scheduled, and goal-oriented, while those that are right-brain possess more artistic characteristics like creativity, flamboyancy, and the “along for the ride” mentality. Everyone has these personality traits, but usually one side’s attributes are more prominent and over-power the qualities from the other hemisphere, thereby influencing all processing of data and information from the environment.
The way we experience the world is called perception. This concept is dependent on infinite internal and external variables like hemisphere dominance. Vision also has a major role in perception; for example, a couple of centimeters can determine whether you see a car flying through an intersection into which you are about to step. Other angles can show aspects of a situation not normally seen, heard, or felt.
However, perception is not only a physical recognition of the environment; it is an emotional reaction to the total collection of a person’s life experiences. Every single person perceives the world in a slightly different way due to the life events he or she remembers that affect his or her reaction to the situation.
One disorder that incorporates all the previous aspects of data input and processing in the brain is synesthesia. This phenomenon occurs in people whose brains have “short-circuited” across two or more areas of sensation. Synesthetes, people with this disorder, might smell numbers or see music.
Daniel Tammet is one of the most famous synesthetes alive. He is a high-functioning savant, meaning he can perform superhuman feats while still having social and personal abilities. His synesthesia has allowed him to perform impressive acts of mathematics and memorization. His perception of the world and how he processes data are very different from what is considered normal.
In his video, Daniel explains his view of the world and about how he thinks, feels, and dissects his surroundings. All of these aspects allow Daniel to perform memory consolidation with ease. Each sensation allows another level of exposure and experience for his brain to make permanent.
Memory is something we all take for granted. Everyday, we are asked to recall information from a previous time, whether on a test or telling a story to peers. The brain is unparalleled in its ability to memorize information. Some researchers have gone as far to say that the brain has unlimited space, but I find that difficult to believe with the limitations of organic material and its availability in the human body. This space can be somewhat unreliable and inaccessible. The process begins in the hippocampus where instantaneous memory is formed. The name correctly suggests that these memories are often fleeting and rarely retained without being converted to the next category of memory, short-term. These memories are often retained clearly for 15-30 seconds. Long-term memory is much more difficult to study due to its obscurity in the brain and how difficult it is to track accuracy and retention years later.
It is very difficult to compare the memories of the brain and computers, but I believe computers have the upper hand in the way that their memory is removable and can be replaced by clean slates constantly.
Finally, the “real” argument: computers cannot feel and are thereby inferior to the brain. They perform like savants permanently but have no way to process the information for themselves without human intervention. There have been reports of robots that can learn, but learning how to walk around a coffee table without hitting it and learning how to build something that can learn how to walk around a coffee table are two very different processes that require extremely different operating systems.
The brain is superior to the computer due to its elasticity, localization of function, and ability to perceive and apply information. The computer has its advantages in speed and memory, but the overall usefulness and processing capabilities of the brain reign supreme.
Weitz, Martin. The Real Rain Man. Focus Productions, 2006. Film. 3 Nov. 2014.
Reber, Paul. “What Is the Memory Capacity of the Human Brain?” Scientific American 10 Apr. 2010. Web. 3 Nov. 2014
McLeod, Saul. “Short Term Memory | Simply Psychology.” Short Term Memory | Simply Psychology. 2009. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
Different Ways of Knowing. Perf. Daniel Tammet. TEDx2011, 2011. Film. 3 Nov. 2014
Brain, Marshall. “How Fast Is the Fastest Microprocessor Chip, Now and in the Future? : HowStuffWorks.” HowStuffWorks. 20 Apr. 2011. Web. 3 Nov. 2014
.”Computer vs Human Memory.” Matlabtipscom. 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.