The pre-frontal cortex of the human mind functions like a computer
A computer is often compared to the human brain and vice versa. Recently, CU psychology professor Randy O’Reilly has discovered evidence for their similarity. He hypothesized that the pre-frontal cortex of the human brain functions much like a digital computer.
“The pre-frontal cortex is biggest in humans compared to other primates. Figuring out what that part of the brain does helps us understand what is unique about people compared to other animals” O’Reilly said. “I think what is unique about people is their ability to process symbols and reason abstractly and think about things that are in the here and now.”
O’Reilly emphasized that this ability to process symbols is very similar to the processing functions of a digital computer.
“Digital computers are really good at processing symbols and so the fact that the pre-frontal cortex is specialized in that way makes sense of what is uniquely smart about people relative to other animals,” O’Reilly said.
O’Reilly mentioned this comparison arose in the 1960s and 1970s. To think that the entire human mind acts like a computer is controversial even today.
“There is this whole school of thought and camp of people that say, ‘Well, we’re just going to think of people as computers,'” O’Reilly said.
On the contrary, in the 1980s, many people believed the human mind was not like a computer. The digital computer metaphor was overthrown, and people decided the brain was mainly analog, O’Reilly said. To this, O’Reilly has specified it to a certain part of the brain rather than the entire thing.
“What we’re saying here is that part of the brain is kind of like a digital computer, so it’s not like the whole thing works like a digital computer,” O’Reilly said. “It is kind of a synthesis of these two different views that have dominated the field. Part of the brain is analog and part is digital.”
Wolfgang Pauli, a graduate student studying computational and cognitive psychology, is a student of O’Reilly.
“The pre-frontal cortex has some properties that are similar to computers,” Pauli said.
Pauli said the only analogy between the brain and the computer is when the pre-frontal cortex is switched on or switched off, apart from that the brain is different than a computer.
Brian Mingus, a junior psychology major, is working with how the brain functions as well.
Mingus states that computers and the human mind are different in the sense that computers are able to store information objectively. In addition, it is tricky to understand the difference between processing information and using memory to retrieve it in the human mind.
O’Reilly has shown, for example, that the hippocampus is highly specialized for storing memories, Mingus said.
“Not only are our memories of past events susceptible to being changed by new information, but our perception of new information is biased by our recollection of past events. This is nothing like a computer, but it’s easy to see why people would want to draw a direct metaphor,” Mingus said.