Friday, August 23, 2013

Think of the brain in terms of systems, not dichotomies

When considering large portions of the brain, we need to think about systems—not dichotomies. A system has inputs and outputs, and a set of constituent components that work together to produce appropriate outputs for particular inputs. 

A bicycle is a familiar system: The inputs are forces that push down on the pedals, slight movements of the rider’s body made in the act of balancing, and force that moves the handlebars. The components include the seat, the wheels, the handlebars, the pedals, the gears, the chain, and so forth. The outputs are the bike’s forward motion, keeping upright, and going in a specific direction, all at the same time. Crucially, the components are designed to work together to produce appropriate outputs for the system as a whole—for the entire bike. The handlebar is connected to the front wheel for steering, the seat is over the pedals to make it easy to push down, the gear chain connects to the rear wheel to cause it to propel the bike forward, and so on.

The same is true of the brain: It has different areas that do different things, and the result of the brain areas’ working together is to produce appropriate outputs (such as your avoiding an object) for particular inputs (such as specific sights and sounds). For instance, if you see a car roaring toward you, you jump out of the way.

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