Sunday, May 2, 2010

Brain as a computer – a thought that makes me feel less weird (that’s the main point of it)

Computers were roughly modeled after the human brain, right? I don't mean structurally, but I think computers are supposed to mimic the human thought process. For years now I have made analogies to computers from how our human brains function - again, I must correct this, I mean, how we think our brains function. People usually smile and nod when I drop this knowledge so I thought it might be good to blog about.

If I did even a bit of online research I could probably find a lot of quotable stuff, but it's Sunday afternoon, I don't want to spend all night writing this, and why should I do research? Andy Rooney doesn't, he just pontificates on whatever little he knows. My dad still makes excuses for Andy - "He was there with the troops during WW II,” etc. - sorry, Daddy, Andy needs to be pensioned off the air. I no longer give him the benefit of the doubt since his spiel a couple of years ago, “Iran and Iraq differ by one letter…” Plenty of more interesting pundits – like myself? – could replace him.

I wasn't in the mood for research, but I'm always in the mood for Fotosearch. Here's an image called "Brainstorming" - doesn't brain storming feel like this looks?

So many sparks you can hardly focus, or no sparks - and then you definitely focus, out of panic that you have turned stupid. What I most relate to about this image is that the brain (you, your mental computer) is alone in an empty area. Yep, that's brainstorming - pulling something out of nothing, reinventing the wheel, saving the boss's butt...oops, I was going to try to avoid rants about work in this post.

Anyway, I have always liked the brain-computer construct. When I tell myself or the person waiting for my delayed response, "My RAM is tied up right now - my hourglass is blinking," not only do I sound trendily savvy but I feel less crazy. What's not to love here?!

Darn it, I had to Google just now - I didn't want to intimidate any of my readers by referring to RAM without a definition (wasn't that kind of me?, and I hope not too patronizing).

Here's what has to say:

RAM (random-access memory) can be compared to a person's short-term memory and the hard disk to the long-term memory. The short-term memory focuses on work at hand, but can only keep so many facts in view at one time. If short-term memory fills up, your brain sometimes is able to refresh it from facts stored in long-term memory. A computer also works this way. If RAM fills up, the processor needs to continually go to the hard disk to overlay old data in RAM with new, slowing down the computer's operation. Unlike the hard disk which can become completely full of data so that it won't accept any more, RAM never runs out of memory. It keeps operating, but much more slowly than you may want it to.

To keep reading this blog post you don't need to follow everything I pasted in that paragraph, but what I really want you to know is this, another quote: “Having more RAM in your computer reduces the number of times that the computer processor has to read data in from your hard disk, an operation that takes much longer than reading data from RAM.”

All just emphasizing the slowness - of computers, and of us. But for good reasons.

OK, I really need to get this post back on track to Sarah terminology.

Like many people, my hard disk has faulty filing - file folders mislabeled, metal file cabinets rusted shut, wooden closet doors warped shut, certain file boxes collecting dust under the bed, where I hope I forget them... My hard disk is a fascinating place - all kinds of interesting things float up from time to time, even if mislabeled - but to survive any given day I depend greatly on RAM. When I'm tired or fussy or…? (beat down? drinking? forced to go grocery shopping?), my RAM seems to lock up, like when you try to do something on your computer and you see the hourglass blinking...blinking...

It's taken me many years to realize I can't force my mental process to speed up. I liken this to when you turn on your computer and it seems to take forever for everything to load and the main screen to arrange itself properly, but if you impatiently click on things too soon, it will backfire on you – right? I have learned the hard way that I need to give myself time, like I give my office computer time. Ideally. Sometimes I don't, and I bang and curse...

Also, you know how sometimes you give your computer a command you didn't mean to, and it goes off and does its thing, and you want to yell (or do yell, even if your computer doesn't listen) - No!, Stop!

Don't our brains do that too? My brain has never responded well to the Stop command. In fact, it rebels against the Stop command - in response it goes even faster down the path I screamed for it not to and reports back in gory detail on whatever I changed my mind about wanting it to do. I know I'm not the only person who has pushed the Off button on my computer, which sometimes works fine and is other times disastrous. I guess the human brain equivalent of this would be, what...drinking to excess, holding one’s breath…and worse.

I also relate a lot to what happens when a computer reallocates information - clean up the old, reallocate what's needed, move it to a better spot. Supposedly this all makes your computer work better, but sometimes when you try to do basic tasks during the reallocation process, you experience hang-ups.

My brain has been hanging up lately - and previously - and maybe always. I try to tell myself this might be part of a sophisticated mental-circuit reallocation process. Gosh, I hope it's not a virus! (think computer virus here, not the human flu) Sometimes when I look back with a bit of perspective, I see that having gone through what felt like a mentally foggy period, I am now mentally - thinking-wise and even emotionally - reoriented so that my new priorities are at the forefront - my mental process has become at least slightly better aligned with what's important for me.

Why don't I close this post with silly computer metaphors about my 3 dogs! (Wouldn't Andy Rooney approve?)

Ancient beagle Marley's operating system is obsolete - mid 1990s - and he does well to handle basic tasks. Placid greyhound-mix Billie’s programming is OK, but neither speed nor functionality are robust. She's overdue for an upgrade, we could say. Her word processing produces an attractive page but is difficult to edit.

Bucho the Chow mix puppy - I think he was programmed with a bunch of bootleg disks. And/or a virus took hold. Sometimes his performance is almost normal – other times it's so virally crazy we fear it will infect the rest of us.

(I’ll refrain from another Andy Rooney reference in closing – I couldn’t live with myself if I did that, smile.)

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