It is not uncommon for psychologists to draw parallels between the modern computer and the ancient human brain. Nearly all the people who read this article will do so with the use of a computer. The computer allows the rapid categorization and transformation of symbolic information. The information is symbolic since it does not contain the actual perceptual information of the event, but a representation of the information encoded into standardized symbols. The symbols must be standardized, or the information could not be shared with others. The symbols must also have the capacity of accurate storage, or the computer would only be useful on an intermittent and spontaneous basis.
The ancient brain processes sensory information in a symbolic fashion, as well. It does not store holograms of what we see, smell, hear or touch, but encodes the information in proteins. Recalling the information encoded in proteins allows categorization and association of the symbols removed from the actual event. The human brain uses standardized sounds to communicate its symbols, otherwise the information could not be shared with others. The storage of symbolic information must be fairly accurate, or the human could not learn to operate effectively within a given environment.
Both the brain and computer have an architecture specialized to encode and process information, yet there are differences. There is no real equivalent of software in the human brain, as the physical architecture of the brain is altered to meet and master novel tasks. Current computers cannot alter their architecture at this point in their development, but small alterations of software can radically change the type and method of information processed. Neurotransmitters provide the closest parallel to computer software. Their respective levels in different areas of the brain may favor and flavor the information processed. The current understanding of neurotransmitter action does not allow for the sweeping changes possible with computer software. The human brain exists in a dynamic flowing relationship with the environment, whereas the computer was designed to be an assistant in this relationship.
Currently, mental illness is most often viewed as a biological defect; similar to a diseased heart or lung. Computer scientists might regard schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as faulty hardware, and depression, anxiety and angst as buggy software. Similarly, psychosurgery has been used in the past to treat schizophrenia, and current psychiatrists modulate neurotransmitters to control depression. The former deserves little comment, and the latter has met with limited success. Neuroscientists and psychiatrists have beaten the drum of biological mental illness for decades. They have attempted changing the computer architecture in schizophrenia, and the computer software in depression. The analogy tends to fail at this point, though, largely due to the negligence of a very important relationship.
The analogy breaks down due to the dynamic relationship between humans and the environment. A person’s environment, especially their social milieu, may profoundly alter neurotransmitter levels. Chronic stress is now known to cause actual alterations in the way genes are expressed. Put another way, the environment alters the hardware and software of the human brain. The brain evolves over a lifetime, whereas the computer is largely a static entity, such that the computer/brain analogy is always inexact. To ignore the environment in the treatment of mental illness is similar to ignoring the road while driving a car. Altering the brain’s software, without altering the environment, is to ignore a major difference between computers and people. Social relationships may be an architect of human dysfunction, but also a foundation upon which we build our happiness.