The Computational Brain

©Fernando Caracena 2020

The brain is a computer-like organ of the body that not only controls, regulates. and orchestrates the functions of the other organs of the body, but it is also the central processor of the entire sensory apparatus. It is where our consciousness is located, from where we initiate all willful action. Brain structure and function is an area of active research that has been going on for several hundred years. Like most modern areas of technology, brain research is advancing fast, producing many fascinating discoveries. Most recently neuroscientists have completed the most detailed map of brain function ever. To find out how neuroscientists have explored brain structure and function, look here.

The Neuron

Fig.1 A diagrammatic depiction of the structure of a neuron created by BruceBlaus and available for free use by its author through Wikicommons. The axon can be up to one meter in length in humans.


There are neurons that report back sense data to the brain, others that transmit commands to the muscles from the brain, and neurons that communicate specialized portions of the brain with others (2nd ref).

After the discovery of the neuron in the late 1800s, and during the development of the digital computer in the 1900s, neuroscientists realized that the brain is "the most complex computer nature can evolve and the neuron is the nano chip that makes that computer go." Initially thought to be a simple computer element, it is now realized to be an entire processing unit complete with internal circuit elements. The neuron is a computer network in itself.

A notable discovery recently made is that neurons are quite sophisticated in function, which is more like the function of what was originally thought to be that of an entire neural network consisting of many neurons. The entire brain is a complex of neurons, which is a network of neurons, each of which is a computer network in its own right. So far we have described two levels of processing. But wait, there is a third level to be described below, which results in a total of three levels of processing, one within the other. That third level also looks like a quantum computer, and in that third level is where some researchers claim that human consciousness resides.

If you do a search of the Web using the phrase, "Where does consciousness reside in the brain?", you will see a lot of explanation that are copies of what some authority figure said that it is an "emergent phenomenon." But, if you did deeper you will find that the focus of consciousness is in localized areas of the two hemispheres of the prefrontal cortex. There is where we have left and right brain awareness of past and present. There is where we decide what to do with our bodies. The rest of the brain handles all the details of how sensory information is presented to our consciousness and how our decisions on how to act are created into and orchestrated into a sequence of motor functions. Our consciousness functions a lot like a king and queen who receive information gathered by many, which is further filtered, presorted, and summarized by others, who conferring among themselves make the decisions that are carried out by their minions. The heads of these departments then make reports that are relayed to the king and queen.

The picture that I get of brain function [subject to a lot of further research of course] is that data transmitted from the senses is processed in various appropriate areas of the brain that use a variety of computational algorithms to reduce that information into a form, which is to be sent to the seats of consciousness in the prefrontal cortex. Anesthetize those prefrontal cortex areas of the brain and you will have a fully functional brain, but without consciousness. You will have a person that is alive but unconscious.

A post on brain function following this one will focus on molecular structures within the neuron that may function as computer elements, microtubules.

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