Wednesday, November 08, 1995

The brain and the hardware/software analogy

I just want to make the point that the hardware/software analogy with
some kind of "fixed" brain on which some kind of "programming" (presumably
environmental/psychological) is imposed, is VERY limited and perhaps even
misleading when it comes to language development.

First of all, when it comes to neural nets, both biological and artificial (my
field) program and hardware cannot be separated. The "program", which can only
be defined as interaction with the outside world, becomes inextricably connected with the hardware. In a regular computer you could erase the program, and the
hardware would remain, unchanged, and ready for a different program. Even with
the very simple neural nets we build, it is not possible to separate the two.
Changing the program means modifying the connection strengths between neurons
AND adding or eliminating neurons and connections. So what are we changing, the
software or the hardware?

Second, the way this kind of "programming" is realized in the brain is itself
the result of "primitive hardware", it therefore not immune from the results of genetic coding. Early hardware + early interactions become new hardware, which
then becomes sensitive to new interactions (...a different level of "programming").. and so on.

I often stand in awe on how similar we all are in light of the extraordinary
complexity of our development. The point is that evolution has built a very
robust system, capable of building two eyes, two legs, a single nose etc. under
an extremely varied set of conditions. The same goes for our speech apparatus, a far more complex system than any single organ. I am baffled at the resistance
I keep seeing re-emerge to the notion that some "organically" based process
within this system might not be up to snuff. Even ignoring the abundance of
genetic studies that show a clear link (but why ignore it?), it is the amazing
specifity of the problem (even though each one of us "dances" around it in
different ways) that convinces me of a fundamental organic cause.

I am equally convinced that psychology DOES play a role. Faced with an obvious
problem, we try to overcome it or work around it. Our particular psychological
makeup can either help us or make things worse. Fear, self-confidence,
determination, acceptance, all play a role in how, if ever, we are able to
CONTINUE the kind of "programming" I discussed above. Even though our neural
pathways, at least at the level of basic systems constructed early on, are far
less plastic, we still CAN improve. Stuttering has ceased being an issue for me. I don't know if my early pathways have been modified, or if I built some good
workarounds, or if that unwelcome continuing program called "aging" had in
store some relief for me anyhow. I do know that I have worked at it, and that
my particular psychology has helped, but I might have done better sooner if
somebody had given it a little push once in a while.

No comments: