Cautions about comparing the human mind to computer systems
For decades, it has been convenient for therapists and those operating in certain therapeutic modalities to use parallel ideas (analogies) when juxtaposing the concept of the “human mind” with computers and computing systems. Even one of those modalities uses the word “programming” in its name – NLP, Neurolinguistic Programming. And as a further example, many hypnotherapists over the years have used the unfortunate term, ‘reprogramming the subconscious’.
Ideas surrounding “junk in, junk out” – “information in, information out” equivalences have become ubiquitous in our society with people using the notion without much thought, as though it’s a proven theory. I still allude to the metaphor while discussing mind viruses on my Af-x site. The convenience is seductive, and more pointedly, in this case, safe.
In the earlier times of my own clinical affectology approaches to ‘explaining the difficult-to-explain’ I was guilty of overusing computer/brain/mind parallels in my language. I proposed that the early-life emotional learnings (encodings) were similar to little ‘programs’ that had been acquired before the learning of language and use of words, and that they formed a sort of deeper operating system that informed the way the rest of the mind-engine in its day to day function on mental and emotional levels.
Even in more recent times, I admit I was still using the metaphor in a different way, but nonetheless pointing my finger at computer systems to try to have people understand the working of the human affect unconscious – at a very deep level.
TRYING TO EXPLAIN “DEEPER” – DOS to the rescue
When others were talking about the GiGo metaphor (garbage in, garbage out), I had long ago realized that most, if not all, computer metaphors were vapid, focusing, as they were and do, on aspects of computer functioning that are relatively easy to access. So, since affectology engages with that area of human mind experience that is inaccessible to conscious functioning, there was and is no correlation between my work and the “usual” form of computer analogy use.
So, I embarked on a project to use the DOS (system) of computer code as my metaphor to describe affectology and Af-x. I said that Af-x was more like the DOS system that is mostly not able to be accessed by operating systems like Windows. This, of course, meant that we as humans use the operating system to function in a conscious way and occasionally – when we go to therapy or try to work our ‘deeper selves’ out – attempt to access our deeply functioning core emotional aspect (represented by the DOS system) when this cannot be done. It’s the wrong way around.
Admittedly, I was a little proud of this construct because I thought it did indeed point out the separation between conscious functioning (operating system) and the emotional core (DOS system), showing that no working at operating system can access the DOS. And that in order to access and reconfigure DOS required a completely different process, different path, a more unique skill-set in order to reach the goal – usually more highly skilled computer technicians.
I was partly right.
But, affectology and Af-x were always modes that were certain about, and championed the ‘bottom-up’ theory of human mind development that followed the notions of quantum psychology’s ‘strange attractor’ formulation, and the ‘it follows’ proposal that one learning is always informed by a previous one. So, I was always a little doubtful that “DOS” was describing the analogy quite well enough.
MACHINE CODE – Before it all
And then one day someone pointed out to me that what I was really trying to signify was “machine code” or “assembly language” which, is apparently closer to the mark and a far more ‘basic and primary’ construct that underlies all computer processing. I’m not that well versed in computer function, so I looked it up. This is what I learned …
Machine code or machine language is a set of instructions executed directly by a computer‘s central processing unit (CPU). Each instruction performs a very specific task, such as a load, a jump, or an ALU operation on a unit of data in a CPU register or memory. Every program directly executed by a CPU is made up of a series of such instructions.
Numerical machine code (i.e., not assembly code) may be regarded as the lowest-level representation of a compiled or assembled computer program or as a primitive and hardware-dependent programming language. While it is possible to write programs directly in numerical machine code, it is tedious and error prone to manage individual bits and calculate numerical addresses and constants manually. It is thus rarely done today, except for situations that require extreme optimization or debugging.
Almost all practical programs today are written in higher-level languages or assembly language and translated to executable machine code by utilities such as compilers, assemblers and linkers. Programs in interpreted languages are not translated into machine code although their interpreter (which may be seen as an executor or processor) typically consists of directly executable machine code (generated from assembly or high level language source code). Machine code is pure hexadecimal binary (1’s and 0’s) code that can be executed directly by the cpu. If you were to open a “machine code” file in a text editor you would see garbage, including unprintable characters (no, not those unprintable characters ;).
Object code is a portion of machine code that hasn’t yet been linked into a complete program. It’s the machine code for one particular library or module that will make up the completed product. It may also contain placeholders or offsets not found in the machine code of a completed program that the linker will use to connect everything together.
Assembly code is plain-text and (somewhat) human read-able source code that has a mostly direct 1:1 analog with machine instructions. This is accomplished using mnemonics for the actual instructions/registers/other resources. Examples include things like JMP or MULT for the jump and multiplication instructions.
… My goodness!!
So, I’ve mostly abandoned the computer metaphor to explain my work, fundamentally because I am most uncomfortable with aligning something as complex, chaotic and flexibly organic as the human mind system, alongside what amounts to being a hard-edged machine and the ordered algorithms of the machine world. But it’s still seductive to resort to the ease of using that metaphor. Most people think they understand what I’m getting at. It seems an apt analogy for explaining a part of the human emotional ‘engine room’ that is impossible to access using any cognitive method.
I particularly like that Eddie Harmon-Jones Ph.D. on this blog wrote well, if not briefly on the subject. Here’s an excerpt:
Metaphors can help us to understand complex systems, because they give us a simplified way of conceiving how they work. However, metaphors can also mislead us and interfere with our understanding, precisely because they oversimplify. Like the carpenter whose only tool is a hammer and who thinks everything looks like a nail, the psychologist who subscribes to the computer metaphor tends to think every psychological process looks like a cognition. This myopic, overly cognitive viewpoint leads to absurdities in trying to squeeze human psychology into an information-processing model, such as defining emotions as “valenced* cognitions.”
*(psychology) Having an (often specified type of) emotional value
Recent social and affective neuroscience research shows that a computer is an inadequate and misleading metaphor for the brain, and this research is going to be the focus of my blog. Humans, along with other organisms with brains, differ from computers because they are driven by emotions and motivations. The brain is much too hot and wet to be represented by a computer. The brain is electrical, but it is also driven by fluids (blood) and chemicals (hormones and neurotransmitters). Most importantly, the brain is part of a body which it drives to action, and research from an embodiment perspective also shows that the whole body (not just the brain) affects emotion, motivation, and other psychological processes.
At the end of the day, though, we should never forget that computers are only machines. As much as it seems convenient to use the computer equivalence because we suspect that others will understand what we’re getting at, its use is still only one-dimensional. It can never allude to what amounts to the extreme complexity and multi-dimensionality of the human unconscious affect (emotional) synthesis that affective neuroscience has shown to be inaccessible through conscious processing – the path, by the way, that we are all prone to take. It’s the wrong path.
Beware of the simplicity of the computer analogy. Beware of thinking you can easily ‘know’ your deepest ‘assembly code’.