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The Computer and the Brain

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2000

    The un-digital brain

    Perhaps the most famous and often quoted line in this remarkable book appears at the beginning of Part II, where von Neumann declares that 'The most immediate observation regarding the nervous system is that its functioning is prima facie digital.' The 'prima facie' modifier is commonly taken to mean von Neumann saw the brain as 'obviously digital,' or 'patently digital,' and that it therefore must resemble a digital computer. But as you read the rest of the book, you quickly discover that this is not what John von Neumann intended. Von Neumann uses words cautiously and precisely, and to him, 'Prima facie' means exactly what it says: 'on its face.' In 1956, the brain appeared digital. But von Neumann thought this impression might be superficial. He thought that deeper biological investigation might well demonstrate that the nervous system is not, in fact, digital, or not completely digital. He believed it might work in some more sophisticated way, and suggests that perhaps some intermediate signaling mechanism, a hybrid between analog and digital, might be at work in the brain. For this and other reasons he actively resisted labeling the brain as a digital computer. In the mid 90s, evidence began to appear that von Neumann was probably right to reserve his judgment. These curious new results show that a single nerve impulse is somehow able to convey information to the brain. This is distinctly un-digital. A number of theories have popped up, some attempting to explain this whopping new mystery, others attempting to explain it away. But its impact on neurophysiology, and on conventional computer models of the brain, is pretty shocking. Not to say, devastating. (See Spikes, by Rieke et al, for a readable account of this story.) When the smoke clears, it would not be surprising if people go all the way back to John von Neumann, looking for traction, fresh starting points, and for von Neumann's wonderfully broad sense of what is possible in neurobiology - a sense we have evidently lost to 'progress' in the years since he wrote this splendid essay. Von Neumann did not include in this book his interesting views on the nervous system of the eye. He was an early adopter of visual memory systems in digital computers, and he was evidently intrigued by the way the retinal cells of the eye are arranged to look backward, that is, toward the screen of the back wall of the eye. Possibly he thought the retinal cells saw back there a thin film diffraction pattern. You can find his interest in the nervous system of the eye remarked in his brother Nicholas Vonneumann's book, John von Neumann as seen by his Brother, and this reminiscence is also paraphrased in Poundstone's Prisoner's Dilemma. Finally, some of the worldly story of von Neumann, his digital computers, and their role in the creation of the hydrogen bomb can be found in MaCrae's biography.

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