Is the Brain a Computer?

In June of this year, Gary Marcus, an NYU professor and contributor to The New York Times, published a piece entitled “Face It, Your Brain Is a Computer”. What follows is Howard Gardner’s response to this article.

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When I am describing my view of intellect,  I often contrast it with the standard view of intelligence. And I invoke a computer metaphor. The old view posits a single all purpose computer: if it computes well, you are smart in everything; if it compute poorly, well, you are out of luck—all cognitive doors are closed.

My view, in contrast, posits the existence of several computers.  Each computes a certain kind of information in a way appropriate to that computer.  And so the musical computer deals with sounds, rhythms, timbres,  harmonics, while the spatial computer deals with the arrangement of objects or movements in local or global space.  A corollary is that the strength (or weakness) of one computer does not entail similar or different evaluations of the strength of another computer. Person A can be strong in spatial and weak in musical intelligence;  person B can display the opposite profile.

Clearly, the invoking of computers is a metaphor.  No one believes that an IBM computer (or several) or a microchip (or hundreds) is literally located in the skull.  Rather, the argument between Marcus’ view, on the one hand, and my view, on the other, is whether it is more helpful to think of one all purpose computer, or several more specific and more dedicated computers.

An analogy may be helpful . We all learn about the world through our sense organs. But there is a big difference between the claim that all sensory organs work in basically the same way, and the claim that each sensory organ has evolved so as optimally to handle certain kinds of inputs in certain ways.  I find the latter view much more useful.

Marcus raises a broader question (“Does it make sense to think of the brain as a computer?”) and has a simple answer (“Yes it does”).  But as he himself points out, we now recognize different kinds of computer with different kinds of computations. MI theory simply extends this form of conceptualization to the variety of cognitive processes of which human beings are capable.

-Howard Gardner