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Unplugging the Computer Metaphor

Metaphors underlying our approach to understanding the mind/brain

Early experimental psychology was dominated by the behaviorists. In order to define themselves as scientists, and to distinguish themselves from unscientific philosophers and psychoanalysts, they deemed that behavior alone was worthy of study and refused to consider any processes that went on inside the "black box" of the brain.

A paradigm shift occurred in the 1960s: the cognitive revolution. Since that time it has become respectable to study cognition, although emotion and motivation were still considered suspect by many experimental psychologists. An integral part of the cognitive revolution was the computer metaphor for brain function. Psychological research during the past 40 years has been dominated by an information-processing model of brain function based on the computer metaphor.

Metaphors can help us to understand complex systems, because they give us a simplified way of conceiving how they work. However, metaphors can also mislead us and interfere with our understanding, precisely because they oversimplify. Like the carpenter whose only tool is a hammer and who thinks everything looks like a nail, the psychologist who subscribes to the computer metaphor tends to think every psychological process looks like a cognition. This myopic, overly cognitive viewpoint leads to absurdities in trying to squeeze human psychology into an information-processing model, such as defining emotions as "valenced cognitions."

Recent social and affective neuroscience research shows that a computer is an inadequate and misleading metaphor for the brain, and this research is going to be the focus of my blog. Humans, along with other organisms with brains, differ from computers because they are driven by emotions and motivations. The brain is much too hot and wet to be represented by a computer. The brain is electrical, but it is also driven by fluids (blood) and chemicals (hormones and neurotransmitters). Most importantly, the brain is part of a body which it drives to action, and research from an embodiment perspective also shows that the whole body (not just the brain) affects emotion, motivation, and other psychological processes.

So, how can we replace the computer metaphor with a metaphor that more accurately represents the brain of an emotion-driven, motivated organism such as a human? I like the metaphor of a car.

A car may have a computer on board, and may be able to process information. But it is driven by fluids (gasoline, oil, etc.). It is both electrical and mechanical, and it can move.

What about you, readers? What metaphor for the human brain would you choose to replace the computer?

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