Surprise, surprise. Our brains work a lot like Whack-A-Mole.

What is the best analogy for the way our brains work? Perhaps it is videogames. In an interview on the topic of free will, Michael S. Gazzaniga, author of Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, describes consciousness, or the state of being aware of one thing or another, as a well-known arcade game. 

So it’s as though consciousness is distributed. Being conscious of something occurs because that sensation takes prominence over other brain activity at a particular time?

It’s absolutely distributed. I use an arcade game to describe it. Do you know the game Whack-A-Mole? It’s the same with consciousness. When you’re conscious, it’s as though a mole is popping up at one place in your brain. When one mole has popped up, the other is down. We might have a sensation of a unified integrated consciousness, but it’s actually individual sensations popping up with whatever you’re particularly conscious of in one moment.

Gazzaniga goes on to compare our brains to Xbox 360s.

Something I really enjoyed in the book was your hardware/software analogy. Can you describe what is the hardware and software when it comes to the brain?

There is a difficult vocabulary in computer science in describing how hardware and software interact to produce the functionality of a computer. That dilemma is the same one in the mind/brain business. We can talk about the nervous system but we also know there are these mental states which are produced by the nervous system. No one’s saying this is some cloud floating over the head, right?

So in other words you’re saying that our nervous system and the physical makeup of brains are like hardware, and consciousness and thought are like software. I like that analogy. 

-Jason Johnson