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Posted By Patrick

In 1906 Sir Charles Sherrington described the brain as being like "an enchanted loom" where “millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern" (this quote appears somewhere in The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, according to Lynch and Granger in Big Brains, which I wrote about in the previous entry; I can’t find the exact location, though). Anyway, I like this comparison – it’s half way between analogies of the brain to machines and the “brain as computer” metaphor we’re all familiar with today. The Jacquard loom, invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard in 1801, was an ancestor of the computer. It was programmed by punch-cards (lots of them), with the loom weaving patterns according to the holes in the card – just as computer programmers not so long ago used punch-cards to tell their computers what to do. The “brain as mechanism” metaphor was common throughout the 19th century, and its intellectual lineage probably goes back as far as Descartes in the seventeenth century – although it really took off as a feasible analogy during the industrial revolution, when the machine began driving the economy and became something of a model of how humans might work as well. Nowadays, of course, the computer, not the machine, is the model for the brain (and drives the knowledge economy… hmmm). But Sherrington’s loom nicely bridges the gap.

a jacquard loom

 
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