Technology

How technology has inspired neuroscientists to reimagine the brain – vox.com

Summary

It’s difficult to talk about the human brain without inadvertently talking about computers. “I’m still processing,” you might say, or “Could we do a quick download about your findings?” Then there’s the favorite phrase of office workers who are stretched too thin: “I don’t have the bandwidth.”

There’s a reason computer metaphors are peppered across academic papers and lectures about the brain, according to Matthew Cobb, a zoologist and …….

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It’s difficult to talk about the human brain without inadvertently talking about computers. “I’m still processing,” you might say, or “Could we do a quick download about your findings?” Then there’s the favorite phrase of office workers who are stretched too thin: “I don’t have the bandwidth.”

There’s a reason computer metaphors are peppered across academic papers and lectures about the brain, according to Matthew Cobb, a zoologist and the author of The Idea of the Brain, a deep dive into the history of neuroscience. As he looked back centuries at early research into the brain, he kept running into older and older mechanical metaphors.

“I realized that at different times, one of the ways that people have conceived of the brain has been to draw a metaphor between what they think the brain does and the highest technology of their time,” he explains. Different generations of researchers drew connections between the brain and automata, electrical circuits, and the telegraph.

These technological metaphors didn’t just serve as illustrations for existing conceptions of the brain. Instead, Cobb says comparisons to inventions like the telegraph wire — which could transmit information from a central node to distant points in the countryside — actually helped researchers reimagine the brain, spurring leaps in their understanding of the structure and function of the brain.

“Once I’d realized that scientists were using these metaphors or these analogies, that actually enabled me to understand for myself why there have been changes and shifts in our understanding,” Cobb says.

The latest episode of Unexplainable, Vox’s podcast about unsolved mysteries in science, traces the impact of new tools like fMRI that probe the brain’s many secrets. But tools are not enough, Cobb argues: Researchers also need concepts or frameworks in order to interpret the data they gather from their tools. And technologies that have little to do with brain research have often inspired and influenced studies of the mind.

A transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length, is below.

So what’s the timeline here? When did we first start doing this?

Well, the first thing to realize is that even an interest in the brain [came] pretty late. For most of human history, the brain hasn’t been the focus of attention in thinking about perception, emotion, spirit, mind — whatever you might want to call it. It’s been some organ in the body like the liver or the kidneys or the heart.

You mention in your book that phrases like “heartache” or “pulling at heart strings” date back to this idea that thought was occurring in the heart. So when do researchers in Europe start saying, “Oh, maybe it’s the brain after all?”

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Source: https://www.vox.com/unexplainable/2021/11/17/22770720/brain-science-technology-neurology-matthew-cobb