Sunday, March 07, 2010

Human Brain and the CPU

When I was going through some of my old mails, I came across a self-sent mail. I had written it one year back as a comment to an article written by my friend Suri about the multitasking ability of the human brain. But due to some reason, I had not posted it. Here is a modified version of that comment:

Brain in all essence, acts as the central processing unit (CPU) of the body. It can perform calculations, control various organs of the body, process the inputs from different organs. However, the question is, can it handle multiple tasks at the same time?

To quote the examples given in the debates that are mentioned in that article, brain can perform multiple tasks like debugging a program and listening to music at the same time. Similarly, one can chop vegetables while talking on phone. But, once the brain finds some task to be crucial, it starts ignoring the other tasks, as a result of which, one has to stop the less-important activity, such as listening to music or chopping vegetables.

The debate, seems equally poised. But in reality, I believe, our brain can still handle multiple tasks and all it needs as prerequisite is some training. In both the situations explained, the secondary activity was stopped just to avoid the disturbance created by it on the primary activity. It doesn't mean that the mind had become uni-tasking.

Remember the time when you started to learn car driving. When you concentrated on the direction, you forgot to remove pressure on the accelerator; when you concentrated on applying the brakes, you forgot to change the gears; and when you concentrated on changing the gears, the direction of motion became wayward. How did all this happen? Is it because of the brain's inablility to handle multitasking?

Also, remember the good old time when you started learning bicycle. You couldn't do it the first time - why? Because you were too busy concentrating on pedalling that you forgot to control the handle; or you were more concerned about the road ahead that you forgot to turn the handle to balance. But eventually, after a fair amount of practice, you learnt to ride; didn't you?

While driving, you watch the road, you turn the direction, you press the clutch and you change the gear. And if the vehicle is a bike, you also need to balance it properly. Can you think of these being done 'one by one' at any given time? Not quite possible.

I believe all the tasks that the brain performs are controlled by mind - either conscious or subconscious. Conscious mind asks for active interacion of the brain, while the subconscious mind can do the 'routine job' without much interaction with brain.

When you started learning to drive or ride, all tasks were getting executed through conscious mind, and it failed miserably. You did a lot of practice, which means you trained the subconscious mind to do all these activities. Now conscious mind is free to do any other job: you can talk or listen to music when you drive.

Conscious mind can handle only one task at a time. But subconscious mind can handle virtually infinite number of tasks. The beauty lies in the fact that one can instruct the subconscious mind to do the things conscious mind is doing. That's what we call practice. Once the subconscious mind has 'learnt' to execute the tasks of conscious mind, you can transfer the task for the subconscious mind, relieve the conscious mind from that task.

If you are very much used to listening music without getting disturbed, you can debug the program easily with music on. If you are deft in chopping vegetables, you can still continue to talk on phone without cutting your fingers. Practice, indeed, makes man perfect!

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ಮನಸ್ವಿ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ಮನಸ್ವಿ said...

Excellent write about human brain, you are rocking yar.. its really nice one.

ya you are correct. as you said when you learning two wheeler, brain suggests eyes to look

at the tyres! conscious mind unable to look at the road! thats why we lose control.

Talking on phone while you are driving is more risky, because emotions can play on both concious and unconscious mind,as well emotions depends who is talking on other side!

if conscious mind gets blank, unconscious mind also gets blank.

finally my consious mind saying "dont talk on phone while you are driving".

sunaath said...

Interesting write up. I agree with you that brain can perform many activities simultaneously with practice.

Harish - ಹರೀಶ said...

Thanks for your feedback.
Will it not be cool if we can push all our main activities to the subconscious mind?

By the way, you are right. We should not talk while driving.. What I have mentioned in the post is talking while driving - not necessarily on phone :-)

@Sunaath uncle,
Thank you for still following my blog :-)
Happy to know that you are also supporting my view.

Santosh : ) said...

You should look at Neural Networks and cognitive sciences .. it professes that training brain is important. I concur with your thought that brain needs a little training to take up an imp. call and chop vegetables :)

Sriram said...

It's been many days. But came out with a good analysis. I wish you do continue posting.

Suresh S. a.ka. Suri said...

@The Idea presented here,

If we draw a parallel between human brain and CPU, at any given time a CPU is allocated to only a single thread/process but not more than that, although it "appears" to a user that the CPU is doing multiple things at a time.

Hence multiprocessing, is actually the cpu doing a context switch really fast between threads. Since it's very small, you hardly notice it.

Apply the same to human brain, the brain switches to and fro between tasks, so fast that it hardly is recognizable.

However when actions are involuntary, brain is not involved at all. E.g. You shy away from fire.

IMHO, if a task requires brain, it can process only one thing at a time and never more than that.

What training the brain actually does is that it helps the brain to manage the context switches very swiftly and efficiently.

Harish - ಹರೀಶ said...

My neurons started spinning haphazardly when I opened a Neural Networks book.. phew.. not my subject ;-)
Nice to know that your thoughts are also similar to mine :-)

Thanks... I hope I get more type to think about something to write :-)

Harish - ಹರೀಶ said...

I think you missed the point here. Although human brain and CPU seem to be doing their job in a similar way, they don't really do so. If you really want me to compare brain to CPU, then I would compare it to a multi-core processor, possibly a processor with infinite cores, each of which is capable of doing a task separately.

When you talk about involuntary actions, again there should be some part of the brain dedicated to handle it: your hand should be aware of the burning sensation, that signal should it should reach some organ, and that organ should send a signal back to your hand and then the hand should retract. Here the organ which receives the signal & sends it back is, most probably, brain. Only difference is that the signal transfer happens between hand & brain ONLY, without interacting with your mind, conscious or subconscious.

This is like a DMA transfer, if you ask me :-P

To put it all together, since brain is an analog in nature, I don't really think there is a "context switch" at all.

Suresh S. a.ka. Suri said...


I am not sure on the infinite core part. But if the actions are involuntary, there response to a stimulus is coordinated by the spinal cord and it involves not part of the brain.

However this article on wikipedia is worth reading:

Harish - ಹರೀಶ said...

Interesting response. I came across the following points:
* Voluntary actions involve Cerebrum, which is slow.
* Involuntary actions do not involve Cerebrum. It may involve due to nervous system and/or other parts of the brain and spinal cord.

However, I couldn't get any reference which says that the brain does context switch as CPUs.

Namitha said...

Nice read :)

ಜಲನಯನ said...

Harish, the amazing power of brain is understood only to an extent of 40-50% and many intricacies are still complex...multitasking is the speciality of brain...good post...

ಮನದಾಳದಿಂದ said...

hi harish,
good collection.
very informational article

ಸೋಮಶೇಖರ ಹುಲ್ಮನಿ said...

you are telling 'subconcious power of mind' in a single article what others have said in a book...great!

Chaithrika said...

From the examples given, I feel it depends on interest, perception and the focus. When I read a text book, I get disturbed by the music, but when I read some story, music never seems to bother me.
I guess, this may be because I am more interested in reading stories.

When we learn driving, changing gears, brake, clutch and steering control seem to be individual activities. Once we say we learned driving, it means we have considered driving activities (gear, brake, clutch and steering control) as one instead of multiple activities. The perception changes and we focus on driving as a whole.

Multitasking for computers may not actually mean doing things together, but it may be a context switch mechanism. Out brain is amazingly talented and it may not be possible to decide how it can be multitasking.

Harish - ಹರೀಶ said...

@Namitha & ಮನದಾಳದಿಂದ,

Yes, the Creator has made it so complex to understand, yet simple enough to use! Still science has to go a long way to explore more about it... Thanks!

You're flattering me!

Harish - ಹರೀಶ said...

Right! When you read text book, you have to understand and memorize the facts, where as when you read a story, it's just for that context. You can forget it later. It may seem like you've trained the brain to "read" with music, but not "comprehend" with music.

>> Out brain is amazingly talented and it may not be possible to decide how it can be multitasking.

Yes! The brain is so proficient that it makes us ask ourselves: Is it really doing multitasking?!

Even though our perception changes, the activities are same. May be that's why they say, perception makes a difference or where there is a will, there is a way :-)