Is the brain really better than the computer?

I always thought the brain was much better than the computer: stronger, faster, and more powerful! Or that the brain is a computer – just more complex than what any computer programmer would ever be able to code. But then someone asked me a question which made me start wondering whether this was really true:

“If your brain is so much better than a computer, why can’t you tell me what 1532 multiplied by 3254 is, but a computer can?”

I realised that I don’t really have an answer to that question (the answer to the sum, however, is 4985128 – according to my computer). So, I decided to do some good old research on the subject, and this is what I found:

  • Computers are better than human brains at making calculations. Computers can do complex calculations in micro-seconds. You even get quantum computers that are made to do quantum physics (all the while, I don’t even know what quantum physics is!).
  • Computers are better at storing data. As long as a computer’s hardware does not get corrupted, it can store exact data for, well… ever! Even the tiniest detail will never go missing (but go ahead and try to remember what you had for dinner two days ago…).

The Human Brain

Now we get to the interesting parts:

  • While the computer is good at calculations, it is bad at adapting. To illustrate, here is a famous story:

In 1997, the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeated chess master Garry Kasparov in a groundbreaking (and historic) chess match. This match demonstrated that computers have the potential to logically outthink even the smartest chess player in the world.

What they also found, however, was that if a chess player was to switch his or her style in the middle of the match, the computer opponent would suddenly start struggling to win. This is because computers aren’t programmed to adapt to changes (see my next point for more on this).

Two people playing chess

  • Computers process information differently than the brain does. A computer is digital, while the brain is organic. This means that the brain is always changing, developing, and adapting. When you learn things, you actually change the physical structure of the brain as well. A computer can only change or adapt when new hardware or software is installed.
  • The brain can’t switch off. When a computer’s off button is held in, it stops transmitting signals. The brain, however, never stops transmitting signals. Did you know? The brain can even be moreactiveduring sleep than during wakefulness.
  • Computers cannot yet mimic certain brain functions, such as emotional responses. While computers have very limited functions, the brain has a complex array of abilities. Just because you can’t multiply 345 by 543 at the drop of a hat, doesn’t mean your brain can’t do other equally complex tasks, such as: interpreting emotions; thinking abstractly; interacting socially; planning; reasoning; making jokes; or showing empathy.
  • Computers don’t have a sense of self-awareness. This is one of the most profound features of the brain’s evolution: self-awareness. “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes famously said. Can you think how freaky it would be if a computer knew that it was a computer? (Ever seen the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? Creepy stuff).
  • The brain is extremely good at learning through observation and experimentation. Even though computer scientists are working on Artificial Intelligence that can ‘learn’, the brain is unrivalled in observational learning. A child can learn a whole new language just by being exposed to it – without needing any lessons.

Can effortlessly learn any language, only while you're too young to care

  • The brain is extremely efficient. While a supercomputer will consume about 96 000 000 Watts of energy every day, the brain consumes only about 20 Watts (just enough to power a small light bulb).

Now, that last comparison means nothing if you don’t fully appreciate the difference in processing power between the brain and the computer. So here is another story:
In January 2014, Japanese and German scientists, for the first time ever, simulated 1% of a single second of the brain’s processing power. They used Japan’s K. computer, the 4th most powerful supercomputer in the world. The K. computer could recreate 1.73 billion virtual nerve cells and 10.4 trillion synapses, which in total added up to only 1% of 1 second of the brain’s processing power!


And here comes the big finish, the ultimate proof that the brain is better than the computer:

Everything that a computer can do better than the human brain is merely a product of human ingenuity, intelligence, and creativity. We can programme and build supercomputers that do quantum calculations, because we use our creativity and imagination.

Human creativity is, at the end of the day, the trump card that the brain holds over the computer. No matter how complex a computer might be, it still functions within pre-programmed parameters, while human creativity and imagination have no boundaries.