Stephen Smith's Blog

Musings on Machine Learning…

The Brain’s Operating System

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Last time we posited that the human brain and in fact any biological brain is really a type of computer. If that is so, then how is it programmed? What is its operating system? What are the algorithms that facilitate learning and intelligent action? In this article we’ll start to look at some of the properties of this Biological operating system and how it compares to a modern computer operating system like Windows.


You can install Windows from a DVD that contains about 3.8Gigabytes of information. You install this on a computer that required a huge specification for its construction including the microprocessor, bios, memory and all the other components. So the amount of information required for the combined computer and operating system is far greater than 3.8Gigabytes.

The human genome which is like the DVD for a human is used to construct both the physical human and provide any initial programming for the brain. This human genome contains only 3.2Gigabytes of information. So most of this information is used to build the heart, liver, kidneys, legs, eyes, ears as well as the brain as well as any initial information to store in the brain.

Compared to modern computer operating systems, video games and ERP systems, this is an amazingly compact specification for something as complex as a human body.

This is partly why higher mammals like humans require so much learning as children. The amount of initial information we are born with is very small and limited to the basest survival requirements like knowing how to breathe and eat. Plus perhaps a few primal reflexes like a fear of snakes.


Windows runs on very reliable hardware and yet still crashes. The equivalent of a Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) in a human or animal would likely be fatal in the wild. Sure in diseases like epilepsy, an epileptic fit could be considered a biological BSOD, but still in most healthy humans this doesn’t happen. You could also argue that if you reboot your computer every night, your chance of a BSOD is much lower and similarly if a human sleeps every night then they work much more reliably than if they don’t.

The brain has a further challenge that neural cells are dying all the time. It’s estimated that about 9000 neurons die a day. Yet the brain keeps functioning quite well in spite of this. It was originally thought that we were born with all our neurons and that after that they just died off, but more modern research has shown that new neuron cells are in fact produced but not uniformly in the brain. Imagine how well Windows would run if 9000 transistors stopped working in your CPU every day and a few random new transistors were added every now and then? How many BSOD would this cause? It’s a huge testament to the brain’s operating system that it can run so reliably for so long under these conditions.

It is believed that the algorithms must be quite simple to operate under these conditions and able to easily adapt to changing configurations. Interestingly in Neural Networks it’s found that as part of training neural networks, that removing and adding neurons during the training process reduces overfitting and produces better results even in a reliable system. We talked about this “dropout” in this article about TensorFlow. So to some degree perhaps the “unreliability” actually led to better intelligence in biological systems.


Most modern computers are roughly based on the von Neuman architecture and if they do support parallelism it through multiple von Neuman architecture computers synchronized together (ie with multiple cores). The neurons in the brain don’t follow this architecture and operate much more independently and in parallel than the logic gates in a computer do. This is more to do with the skill of the programmer than a constraint on how computer hardware is put together. As a programmer it’s hard enough to program and debug a computer that executes one instruction at a time in a simple linear fashion with simple flow of control statements. Programming a system where everything happens at once is beyond my ability as a programmer. Part of this comes down to economics. Biology programmed the brain’s algorithms over millions of years using trial and error driven by natural selection. I’m required to produce a new program in usually less than one year (now three months in Internet time). Obviously if I put in a project plan to produce a new highly parallel super ERP system in even ten years, it would be rejected as too long, never mind taking a million years.

The brain does have synchronization mechanisms. It isn’t totally an uncontrolled environment. Usually as we study biological systems, at first they just look mushy, but as we study in more detail we find there is an elegant design to them and that they do tend to build on modular building blocks. With the brain we are just starting to get into understanding all these building blocks and how they build together to make the whole.

In studying more primitive nervous systems (without brains), there are two typical simple neural connection, one is from a sensor connecting to a single action, then there is the connection from a sensor connected to a coordinator to do something like activate two flippers to swim straight. These simple coordinators are the start of the brain’s synchronization mechanisms that lead to much more sophisticated coordinated behaviour.

Recurrent and Memory

The brain also is recurrent, it feeds its output back in as input to iterate in a sense to reach a solution. There is also memory, though the brain’s memory is a bit different than computers. Computers have a memory bank that is separate then the executing program. The executing program access the memory but these are two separate systems. In the brain there is only one system and the neurons act as both logic gates (instruction executors) and memory. To some degree you can do this in a computer, but it’s considered bad programming practice. As a programmer we are trained to never hard code data in our programs and this will be pointed out to us at any code review. However the brain does this as a matter of course. But unlike computer programs the brain can dynamically change these as it feels like, unlike our computer programs that need a programmer to be assigned to do a maintenance update.

This leads to another fundamental difference between computers and humans, computers we update by re-installing software. The brain is never reinstalled, what you get initially is what you live with, it can learn and adapt, but never be reinstalled. This eliminates one of tech supports main solutions to problems, namely reinstall the operating system. The other tech support solution to problems of turn the computer off and on again is quite difficult with biological brains and involves a defibrillator.


This article was an initial look at the similarities and differences between the brain and a modern computer. We looked at a few properties of the brain’s operating system and how they compare to something like Windows. Next time we’ll start to look at how the brain is programmed, namely how we learn.



Written by smist08

June 16, 2017 at 6:52 pm

One Response

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  1. […] the last couple of articles we were considering whether the brain is a computer and then what its operating system looks like. In this article we’ll be looking at how the brain learns and comparing that to how […]

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