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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. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.

Computers, quite literally, process information — numbers, letters, words, formulas, images. Side by side, those three bytes form the word dog. Computers, quite literally, move these patterns from place to place in different physical storage areas etched into electronic components.

Still a mystery: How does the brain make the mind?

Sometimes they also copy the patterns, and sometimes they transform them in various ways — say, when we are correcting errors in a manuscript or when we are touching up a photograph. The rules computers follow for moving, copying and operating on these arrays of data are also stored inside the computer. Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve.

They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Levels of consciousness

Humans, on the other hand, do not — never did, never will. I n his book In Our Own Image , the artificial intelligence expert George Zarkadakis describes six different metaphors people have employed over the past 2, years to try to explain human intelligence. In the earliest one, eventually preserved in the Bible, humans were formed from clay or dirt, which an intelligent god then infused with its spirit.

The hydraulic metaphor persisted for more than 1, years, handicapping medical practice all the while. In the s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence — again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mids, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph.

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Each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of the era that spawned it. Predictably, just a few years after the dawn of computer technology in the s, the brain was said to operate like a computer, with the role of physical hardware played by the brain itself and our thoughts serving as software.


Miller proposed that the mental world could be studied rigorously using concepts from information theory, computation and linguistics. Although he acknowledged that little was actually known about the role the brain played in human reasoning and memory, he drew parallel after parallel between the components of the computing machines of the day and the components of the human brain. Propelled by subsequent advances in both computer technology and brain research, an ambitious multidisciplinary effort to understand human intelligence gradually developed, firmly rooted in the idea that humans are, like computers, information processors.

This effort now involves thousands of researchers, consumes billions of dollars in funding, and has generated a vast literature consisting of both technical and mainstream articles and books. The information processing IP metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity.

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And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point — either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge. They saw the problem. It encumbers our thinking with language and ideas that are so powerful we have trouble thinking around them. The faulty logic of the IP metaphor is easy enough to state.

It is based on a faulty syllogism — one with two reasonable premises and a faulty conclusion. Reasonable premise 1: all computers are capable of behaving intelligently. Reasonable premise 2: all computers are information processors. Faulty conclusion: all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors.

Setting aside the formal language, the idea that humans must be information processors just because computers are information processors is just plain silly, and when, some day, the IP metaphor is finally abandoned, it will almost certainly be seen that way by historians, just as we now view the hydraulic and mechanical metaphors to be silly. Overall brain size doesn't correlate with level of intelligence.

For instance, the brain of a sperm whale is more than five times heavier than the human brain but humans are considered to be of higher intelligence than sperm whales. The more accurate measure of how intelligent an animal may be is the ratio between the size of the brain and the body size, according to the University of California San Diego's Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center. Among humans, however, brain size doesn't indicate how smart someone is.

Some geniuses in their field have smaller- than-average brains, while others larger than average, according to Christof Koch , a neuroscientist and president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. For example, compare the brains of two highly acclaimed writers. The Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev's brain was found to be 2, grams, while writer Anatole France's brain weighed only 1, grams.

Humans have a very high brain-weight-to-body-weight ratio, but so do other animals. The reason why the human's intelligence, in part, is neurons and folds. Humans have more neurons per unit volume than other animals, and the only way to do that with the brain's layered structure is to make folds in the outer layer, or cortex, said Eric Holland, a neurosurgeon and cancer biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington.

Other intelligent animals, such as monkeys and dolphins, also have these folds in their cortex, whereas mice have smooth brains, he said. Humans also have the largest frontal lobes of any animal, Holland said. The frontal lobes are associated with higher-level functions such as self-control, planning, logic and abstract thought — basically, "the things that make us particularly human," he said. The human brain is divided into two hemispheres , the left and right, connected by a bundle of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum.

Anatomy of the human brain

The hemispheres are strongly, though not entirely, symmetrical. But arguments about the primacy of either mind or brain are just not productive: all they produce is smoke and heat, but no light.

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Second, to the heart of the matter, the closing sentence refers to the view, held by different religions and philosophies, that the fundamental source of morality — and by extension, human goodness, compassion, altruism, kindness, etc. Human psychology alone — without reference to transcendental factors — can fully account for morality, or it cannot. Separately, either there are transcendental factors or there are not. If we do not make the assumption that morality is based on God, then evidence that morality requires only a mind and brain is not evidence against the existence of God.

You see a similar fallacy in the cultural conflicts over the implications of biological evolution. Those who think that evolution would somehow eliminate God consider evidence for it to be a kind of blasphemy, so some school boards have tried to slip creationism into science textbooks. Setting aside that particular portrayal leaves plenty of other ways that God could work in the world. Evidence that God did not create Man is not evidence that there is no God: in principle, God could exist and not have created Man. In other words, a reasonable person could believe both that evolution has unfolded without being guided by the hand of God and that God exists — and similarly believe that morality does not require God and that God exists.

It is a category error, and a deeply unscientific one, to think that evidence for the neuropsychological substrates of morality is evidence against a soul or against other transcendental factors. In this light, one does not need to resist evidence for evolution, or for the neuropsychology of morality or spiritual experiences. This point has significant social implications, because the resistance to scientific findings out of a fear that they somehow challenge faith has dramatically lowered scientific literacy in America. But that leaves all sorts of other theories about God that are not yet disproved — as well as the fundamental matter that God is by definition categorically outside the realm of proofs or disproofs within the material universe.

God may or may not exist. You have to find your own beliefs in that regard — and brain science will not help you. Get the Just One Thing Weekly Newsletter A simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.

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What the Words Mean The more profound the subject, the murkier the discussion. Examples of neuroplasticity include: Meditators have a thicker anterior cingulate cortex and insula a part of the brain that tracks the internal state of the body ; a thicker cortex means more synapses, capillaries bringing blood , and support cells. Cab drivers have a thicker hippocampus which is central to visual spatial memory at the end of their training, memorizing the spaghetti snarl of streets in London. Pianists have thicker motor cortices in the areas responsible for fine finger movements.

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Within science, it has been long presumed that mental activity changed neural structure — how else in the world could any animal, including humans, learn anything? What is news is the emerging detail in our understanding of the mechanisms of neuroplasticity, which include increasing blood flow to busy neurons, altering gene expression epigenetics , strengthening existing synapses the connections between neurons , and building new ones.

This growing understanding creates opportunities for self-directed neuroplasticity , for using the mind in targeted ways to change the brain to change the mind for the better. Some of these ways are dramatic, such as stroke victims drawing on undamaged parts of the brain to regain function. But most of them are the stuff of everyday life, such as building up the neural substrate of well — controlled attention through meditative practice.

Third, the mind and brain co-arise interdependently. The brain makes the mind while the mind makes the brain while the brain makes the mind. They are thus properly understood as one unified system. Proofs and Disproofs Lately, numerous authors have tried to rebut beliefs in God e.