Assignment 3

by Zach Tomaszewski

for LING 440, Spring 2002, taught by Ben Bergen

From Burd's Systems Architecture come the following sentences concerning data representation:

The rich variety of data representations that can be recognized and used as input to the brain are an integral part of its considerable processing power and flexibility... To be manipulated by the brain, external data representations must be converted to an appropriate internal representation and transported to the brain's "processing circuitry."

These sentences are examples of the MIND IS A COMPUTER conceptual metaphor, which is itself a subset of the MIND IS A MACHINE metaphor. The following shows the mapping of this metaphor.

processing or softwarethinking or cognition
circuits or hardware neurons or brain
data input sensations
output/result actions
stored data memories
contents of CPU or RAM consciousness/short term memory

Two more example sentences using this metaphor are Well, that [non sequitur] just doesn't compute and I need more data before I can produce a decision. A few slightly more novel uses are Man, that car accident totally crashed his hard drive!, Yeah, I guess her software's a little buggy, and Do you think he'll ever reboot from the coma?.

The metaphor is even more prevalent in how we think about the brain than how we talk about it. We often assume that the mind is separate from the brain, just as the same software can be run on different hardware. We think that the same sensations (input) should result in the same actions (results) because the processing should be the same. We believe that there is some sort of processing being performed inside our heads. (An alternative metaphor is that of a neural network, where there is no symbol processing performed, only different weightings at each firing node.) What is also interesting is how much we think of computers as minds. Indeed, when computers were first built, the public called them electronic brains. Yet today, most people refuse to think of computers as thinking beings.

The MIND IS A COMPUTER is obviously a relatively new metaphor. It is possible that it evolved from a COMPUTER IS A MIND metaphor. But I think that there is still some basic notion of the mind as a machine. Certainly, behaviorists hold that all behavior is environmentally determined--the input determines the output. We assume that minds are moldable and changeable--we teach children, train dogs, medicate lunatics, and punish criminals. By "modifying the internal variables" we can produce a different result in the same setting, much like tinkering with the inner workings of a complex machine. (Less mechanized cultures may find this mind-shaping activity to be more "organic" in nature, as in pruning a bonsai tree.)

I would guess that the primary metaphorical assumption here is that the mind is an entity. If it is an entity or object, it seems that the mind should follow the same rules of causalitiy. Forces should be able to act on the mind and change its state. Yet it is rarely easy to find simple "causes" for a person's behaviors, and so arises the notion of the mind as some complex, "buggy" entity, such as machine or computer. MIND IS A COMPUTER is a complex metaphor, based on our assumptions about the nature of mind.

In the text, the purpose of the metaphor is to highlight how "any data and information processor--whether organically, mechanically, electrically, or optically implemented" must be cabable of accessing internally and externally stored data and transporting data between the storage and the processing components. The metaphor is necessary because, without it, it is debatable whether the brain is also a data processor.