The Brain is also a Computer – Man or Machine

How do we see?

How do we feel?

How do we think?

There are so many huge philosophical questions that can be answered with: ‘Our Brain does it.’

Man or Machine?

We know which part of us gives us the beauty of life, what most people don’t know is how it does it.


Anyone who understands computer circuitry might be able to appreciate it when I say that the brain works in more or less the same way as a computer. It’s just much, much more complex. However I’m sure most of you aren’t computer engineers so I’ll try sum it all up.

The Computer:

The Microchip, close up.

In a computer, you strike a key (let’s say the letter ‘K’). This sends an electrical signal down a cable into a microchip somewhere. This microchip will then absorb this signal and find out where it came from (it does this simply by taking into account which cable it came down).

Next the microchip will send out a few more signals causing a number of chain reactions. One of these reactions will be a signal running into the memory drive and working it’s way through to the computer’s main software. This software then says that the position the original signal came from is the key ‘K’. Great the computer has identified what the signal is, but not what it’s for. Next it’ll work into the currently used software (lets say its word). This software says that the key ‘K’ is to write ‘K’ into a word document. The ‘K’ is thus put into word.

In summary:

You push a button, it sets off a series of signals that identify where the signal is from. It is then found what the signal is for, and is then converted into a K on screen (this is a visual representation of the original signal).

The brain does the same thing, it just does a hell of a lot more, a hell of a lot faster.

The Brains turn:

The Brain. Plus a bit of colour...

See if you can find many differences. A ray of light enters your eye and hits a nerve cell. This starts an electrical signal (called an action potential) which is then carried into the brain. There is an area in the brain called the ‘Thalamus’ which organises these signals, finds out where they are from and sends them off to the right place, in this case the signal came from the ‘Retina’ (the bit in your eye that sees light) and it needs to go to the ‘Visual Cortex’ (the bit that knows what it is for).

The visual cortex then identifies exactly what part of the eye the signal came from and sends it off to various other parts of the cortex. Eventually this signal gets a proper perceptual representation (i.e. we see something).

The bottom line is that our brains work the same way as a computer. So let’s put it all together:

1) There is a stimulus (Computer = the K button. Us = Light).

2) This causes a signal (Computer = down a Cable. Us = down a Nerve).

3) This enters an area that organises the signals by where they come from (Computer = Microchip. Us = Thalamus).

4) This is then sent off to an area so it can be recognised and used (Computer = Memory. Us = Visual Cortex).

5) Finally the information is processed and shown as a representation somehow (Computer = K in a Word document. Us = We see something).


This is going to form the basis of my next few posts. I’m going to explain how we sense and interact with the world around us. Then I’m going to bring up some philosophical questions that Neuroscience has come across.

Including the one I’ve opened in this topic.

Leave a comment


  1. Prometheus

     /  22/01/2012

    this is great. I’ve tried to explain the same thing to my readers but you clearly know more about this than me. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the philosophical implications of all this.

  1. The Brain in Technicolour | Science Defined

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