The empty brain, by Robert Epstein

No, this is not an article about liberals and other statists. Recently SLL posted an article, Running the Table, which argued that the human brain is a serial, not a parallel processor. Turns out, according to this fascinating article, that the human brain is neither, and analogizing the brain to computers obscures rather than enhances understanding of the brain. From Robert Epstein at

Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer

Robert Epstein is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.

No matter how hard they try, brain scientists and cognitive psychologists will never find a copy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the brain – or copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli. The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.

Our shoddy thinking about the brain has deep historical roots, but the invention of computers in the 1940s got us especially confused. For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.

To see how vacuous this idea is, consider the brains of babies. Thanks to evolution, human neonates, like the newborns of all other mammalian species, enter the world prepared to interact with it effectively. A baby’s vision is blurry, but it pays special attention to faces, and is quickly able to identify its mother’s. It prefers the sound of voices to non-speech sounds, and can distinguish one basic speech sound from another. We are, without doubt, built to make social connections.

A healthy newborn is also equipped with more than a dozen reflexes – ready-made reactions to certain stimuli that are important for its survival. It turns its head in the direction of something that brushes its cheek and then sucks whatever enters its mouth. It holds its breath when submerged in water. It grasps things placed in its hands so strongly it can nearly support its own weight. Perhaps most important, newborns come equipped with powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to change rapidly so they can interact increasingly effectively with their world, even if that world is unlike the one their distant ancestors faced.

Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.

To continue reading: The empty brain



7 responses to “The empty brain, by Robert Epstein

  1. Pingback: The empty brain, by Robert Epstein – The way I see things …

  2. My response to this fascinating article is so unique that I am unable to effectively communicate it to you. Therefore you should take that into account and continue doing the same to me.

    As the author intimates, I and all others are always changed in the most unique and personal of ways when visiting your site.



    • In the same vein, doing this site, and my interactions with you and many other great readers, has changed me in unique and personal ways. I had no idea when I upgraded SLL in late 2014 that I would get so much pure fun and enjoyment from it.


  3. Here’s an article that addresses the limitations – and also the applicability – of the brain / computer analogy, without the snotty vitalist handwaving:

    Apologies for the late response – I just ran across this today. If you’re interested in a realistic appraisal of the current level of understanding brain function – as opposed to a ‘mankind can never travel faster than 20 miles per hour’ dismissal of the possibility of understanding – it is well worth reading.


    • Thanks for the response, late or not. I skimmed the article and it looks interesting, but long. I will try to give it the attention it deserves, and thanks for sending the link.


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