Your brain is like a computer: Function, analogy, simplification

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


The relationship between brain and computer is a perennial theme in theoretical neuroscience, but it has received relatively little attention in the philosophy of neuroscience. This paper argues that much of the popularity of the brain-computer comparison (e.g. circuit models of neurons and brain areas since McCulloch and Pitts, Bull Math Biophys 5: 115–33, 1943) can be explained by their utility as ways of simplifying the brain. More specifically, by justifying a sharp distinction between aspects of neural anatomy and physiology that serve information-processing, and those that are ‘mere metabolic support,’ the computational framework provides a means of abstracting away from the complexities of cellular neurobiology, as those details come to be classified as irrelevant to the (computational) functions of the system. I argue that the relation between brain and computer should be understood as one of analogy, and consider the implications of this interpretation for notions of multiple realisation. I suggest some limitations of our understanding of the brain and cognition that may stem from the radical abstraction imposed by the computational framework.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNeural Mechanisms
Subtitle of host publicationNew Challenges in the Philosophy of Neuroscience
EditorsFabrizio Calzavarini, Marco Viola
ISBN (Electronic)9783030540920
ISBN (Print)9783030540944, 9783030540913
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Publication series

NameStudies in Brain and Mind
ISSN (Print)1573-4536
ISSN (Electronic)2468-399X


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