The MWS Podcast 96: Dr. Robert Epstein on why your brain is not a computer

We are joined today by Robert Epstein, who is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. His books include Teen 2.0: Saving our children and families from the torment of adolescence and Parsing the Turing Test: Philosophical and methodological issues in the quest for the thinking computer. He also recently wrote an article for Aeon Magazine entitled The empty brain: Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer and this will be the topic of our discussion today.

MWS Podcast 96: Robert Epstein as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_96_Robert_Epstein

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

5 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 96: Dr. Robert Epstein on why your brain is not a computer

  1. This was a real meeting of minds and I’m in awe of Barry’s masterly facilitation of Dr Epstein’s refreshing ideas. Dr Epstein’s unravelling of historical metaphors about brain function were, for me, very interesting. I was reminded on my earliest experience of asylums for the ‘insane’, in the 1950s, when I was training as a nurse. Hydrotherapy was on the wane from its heights in the 1940s, but the hospital still had sophisticated technologies for giving patients high pressure baths, flotation chambers, and other watery interventions.

    Communal bath-times were riotous fun, with much splashing, shouting, throwing of sponges across the communal bathrooms (ten baths in one large room, and a huge trolley of clean long-johns and long-sleeved vests); in contrast to the wards, where an iron authoritarianism reigned, and patients were almost mute and inert.

    So much (a lot?) to be said for the watery metaphor of brain and mind. But analogies about water, freedom, steamy warmth and nakedness are still valid constructs for a process of restoring well-being, even if hydraulics applied the workings of the mind are less so.

    Altogether one of the most remarkable and appropriate podcasts I have heard so far, and thanks to both of you involved in delivering it. The visuals were excellent, and helped to make Dr Epstein’s points, and Barry’s questions, more vivid and telling.

    I really enjoyed and learned from Dr Epstein’s talk, and shall have another view of computers from this time forward.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Peter. Robert Epstein put me at my ease straight away and made it easy for me.

  3. Yes, I’d agree with Peter that this was an effective interview, perhaps because it was relatively brief and well-focused.

    The limitation of Robert Epstein’s view seems to be that there is no mention of brain lateralisation as helping to explain why the metaphor is so ‘sticky’ (indeed, why we are prone to absolutizing metaphors in general). It wasn’t that his ‘defective syllogism’ was wrong as that he didn’t tell us anything about the more underlying reasons why people make that kind of mistake. He talked about the defects of the representational view of memory without mentioning the close association between the expectation that a ‘precise mental copy’ is possible and the left hemisphere’s focus on goals and representations. It’s not that the left hemisphere really can produce a precise copy as much as that it expects to do so and is disappointed when it fails.

    When Epstein talked about ‘poor’ reproduction of Beethoven’s fifth I was struck by the apparent persistence of the same assumptions. I don’t think there’s any standard by which we could judge our memory of Beethoven’s fifth to be ‘poor’ apart from a practical one that does not depend on precision. If the version of Beethoven’s Fifth that I recall becomes more meaningful to me on each recollection, I’d say it’s actually improving, and if I perform it in a creatively altered way, then that’s also a practical improvement on merely reproducing it like an MP3 file. There’s no ‘poor’ about it. So that’s why I think we need to not only note the difficulty (indeed, irrelevance) of precise reproduction in the brain, but also drop the expectations and the standards that result only from the over-dominance of the left hemisphere over the right. As Iain McGilchrist notes, the right hemisphere’s approach to memory is not that of precise reproduction but that of mimesis, which creatively combines the original experience with new elements. Mimesis is something computers cannot do.

    1. I’m not sure there’s much lateralization in normal brains. The lateralization idea grew from experiments performed with a handful of people whose brains were highly abnormal. As British neurobiologist Steven Rose says in his new book, Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds?, “for people with normally functioning brains, and thus with left and right hemispheres in continuous and coordinated communication, the partitioning of function between left and right brain is irrelevant to performance.”

      1. Hi Robert,
        Have you read Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and his Emissary’? If not, I highly recommend that you do. There’s a summary of it in my review on this site: To me it seems extremely obvious that brain lateralisation is relevant to normal minds, but then I’ve been digesting McGilchrist’s book and finding it very insightful and widely applicable for about 5 years now. I’m aware that there is still a section of the neuroscientific/ psychological establishment who are sniffy about McGilchrist: but it’s high time they got over their resistance to a synthetic work that breaks new ground and actually read and considered what he says rather than dismissing it from afar. It is extremely well documented and referenced, but it’s also synthetic, combining neuroscience with many other perspectives: and the limitations of the specialised mindset are part of what he is taking issue with.

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