Brain = Computer? No, according to new study

The theory that the mind works like a computer, in a series of distinct stages, was an important steppingstone in cognitive science, but it has outlived its usefulness, concludes a new Cornell University study. Instead, the mind should be thought of more as working the way biological organisms do: as a dynamic continuum, cascading through shades of grey.

In a new study published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (June 27-July 1), Michael Spivey, a psycholinguist and associate professor of psychology at Cornell, tracked the mouse movements of undergraduate students while working at a computer. The findings provide compelling evidence that language comprehension is a continuous process.

“For decades, the cognitive and neural sciences have treated mental processes as though they involved passing discrete packets of information in a strictly feed-forward fashion from one cognitive module to the next or in a string of individuated binary symbols — like a digital computer,” said Spivey. “More recently, however, a growing number of studies, such as ours, support dynamical-systems approaches to the mind. In this model, perception and cognition are mathematically described as a continuous trajectory through a high-dimensional mental space; the neural activation patterns flow back and forth to produce nonlinear, self-organized, emergent properties — like a biological organism.”