• Robb G. Best

The Brain as a Supercomputer

Have you ever wondered how your brain and your smartphone's operating systems compare? After all, people commonly draw analogies between computers and the brain. Given how a smartphone really is just a very small computer, these days, you're likely lugging around one of each.

Of course, a smartphone differs from your brain in many ways. For one thing, your brain's carrying case is generally more durable.

For another thing, a smartphone processes in a series format, a couple of bits of information at a time. Imagine a light switch connected to a lamp in your bedroom. The switch only controls that single light circuit. It has no effect on, say, the lights in your kitchen.

In much the same way, your phone's silicone processing chips are essentially a collection of tiny switches, each creating a single and separate cause and effect. Combined in sufficient numbers, you get the cool little apps we rely on. They're perfectly configured for computing the square root of a number, or helping to triangulate the location of the nearest gas station. But those programs are deterministic: they can only work in a certain preprogrammed fashion. Every time you turn on your GPS, it operates the same way.

Your brain runs differently.

The machinery in your skull processes information in parallel. This means that rather than operating with a binary on/off switch on a single circuit, each neural connection has about 7000 switching options. That's impressive on its own, but keep in mind that the adult human brain has roughly 86 billion neurons. Stretched end to end, they would cover the circumference of the earth more than four times.

The result? Each person carries 600 trillion possible configurations in their head, or more than 3000 times all the stars in the galaxy, according to Daniel Bor in his new book, The Ravenous Brain.

This incredible flexibility allows your brain to rearrange and create new neural switches, altering and effectively boosting the power of your more frequently traveled pathways. Your brain cells follow what's called Hebb's rule: the neurons that fire together, wire together. In the same way that "you are what you eat", you are what you think. We program and re-program ourselves every day.

Imagine if each time you used your GPS, it worked faster, and with improved accuracy. From this angle, even the most cutting edge technology lags far behind the ancient electrical-chemical signaling system we all carry in our heads.

At least, until 2074, when Apple unveils the iBrain.


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