A computer’s operating system is the vital component that enables the device’s hardware and software resources to function as one. But when the system is compromised by malware or a computer virus, its performance can suffer or even lead to a total device crash. Our bodies, and the systems that keep us operating, can be compared to the interworking of a computer. Our hardware is our muscles and tissues, our software is nerve signals, and our operating system is the nerve system itself. Just like a computer’s operating system, it is our nerve system that enables our hardware and software resources to function together as one.
The nerve system is composed of the brain, spinal cord, spinal nerves, and the peripheral nerve system, the latter consisting of large, long branches of the spinal nerves and numerous successively narrower and smaller branches of those branches. The brain, as the center of the nerve system, originates signals that coordinate the activities of all the other physiological systems.1 These signals are transmitted down specific pathways to reach specific target structures. These targets – the cells – that comprise the tissues and organs of your cardiovascular, respiratory, lymphatic, gastrointestinal, and endocrine systems, are what keeps you alive. The cells do their job and then transmit responses back to the brain via the nerve system. These responses consist of status reports, requests for additional materials, and other information regarding local conditions. The brain processes this new information and issues new instructions.
It’s easy to see how the now commonplace analogy between the brain and the computer came to be. However, it’s critically important to recognize that the brain is most definitely not a computer. Regardless of the ability of lightning-quick systems to rapidly sort through huge masses of data, such processing speed and relative accuracy are not the manifestations of intelligence. Rather, these computer feats are wonderful mechanical accomplishments owing to human ingenuity. In the absence of human designers and programmers, there would be no supercomputer.
In contrast, human consciousness utilizes the human brain to arrive at new solutions to problems. These novel solutions are emergent, meaning they could not be predicted by analysis of the information at hand. Computers are not capable of emergent behavior. Thus, our animating principle not only guides the functioning of our bodies, but may also guide our choices, decision-making, and functioning in the world.