Monday, May 1, 2017

How we think

How we think Human brains are not like computers, though it is easy to see why some believe they are. Both computers and brains can calculate using numbers or find the odd one out in a list and even recognize a face in a picture.

A computer is a machine that can calculate using 1’s and 0’s. Using 1’s and 0’s is ideal for a machine because you can choose between 1 and 0 with an on-off switch. Join more switches in a circuit and you can make many more choices. If you store the image of a face as a pattern of 1’s and 0’s you can program the computer to check if a picture has the same pattern of 1’s and 0’s. The computer is not literally recognizing a face it is a complicated circuit that signals match when two patterns of 1’s and 0’s are alike.

I describe the parts of our mind that look after food, poison, mating, competition, danger, affiliation, homeostasis and sleep as circuits. The main reason I do so is they do not think the way we consciously do, they detect and signal.

How our circuits work

Take our food circuit for example. The cells in our bodies need a constant supply of chemicals. A fall in the level of one of these chemicals can trigger a signal. In a worm the signal might prompt a move to a direction that increases the traces of the chemical in the soil. In humans it might prompt us with a thought to get an apple.

In the worm the food circuit has to work with the sensory system to get information on where the chemical it needs can be found. It has to work with the narrative system to get information on when the chemical is needed, and it has to work with the motor control system to move the worm’s body in the direction of food. The same interaction of circuits and systems happens in us.

Sensory information is more important for animals like us who need to use associations to find food at a distance. Our food circuit has to store an association between sugar and the pattern of a red sphere shape in order to prompt us to get an apple.

While computers input, process and store data as 1’s and 0’s the same is not true for our brains. We store information by growing connections between neurons. The same connections are used when we have the same experience again or when we remember it. Patterns like the apple shape, stored as connections in our brain, help us to search for apples again. When we find another apple the apple part of our brain becomes active. This is how seeing the apple is the same as knowing it is an apple. The apple part of our brain can be connected to other parts of the brain. This is how we can think about apples whether we see them or not.

All of our cells, not just those in the brain and nervous system which work in detecting and signalling, can communicate with the cells around them. The thought that you want a drink of water can begin with cells signalling a need.

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