As somatic experience with objects informs how we image mental activity, we often conceive of our cognition in terms of a familiar medium, tool or machine. [continued below]



Renascent, visual essay, digital, 13 1/4 x 70 1/2 inches, 2014.

Move your mouse cursor over image to magnify.

Renascent, Panel 1, visual essay, digital, 13 1/4 x 23 1/2 inches, 2014.



Renascent, Panel 2, visual essay, digital, 13 1/4 x 23 1/2 inches, 2014.



Renascent, Panel 3, visual essay, digital, 13 1/4 x 23 1/2 inches, 2014.


Circa 360 BCE, Plato’s Socrates envisioned the mind as a wax block upon which, if of sufficient depth and good consistency, perceptions imprint clearly, and for which learning is elusive when hard or wet. Today, we might understand this ‘mental wax’ as neuro-plasticity, a process wherein synaptic pathways develop connection and neural networks change behavior in response to stimuli and information. At the turn of the 17th century, Shakespeare’s Hamlet committed observations “within the book and volume of [his] brain”. In this, Shakespeare referenced a contemporary educational practice in which students maintained a ‘commonplace book’. Amid these paper leaves, the young collected excerpts from literature and lecture, copied daily converse and maxim (sententiae), and classified topics of interest into nests (nidos)–chronicling a public (or ‘common’) cultural knowledge so as to mature their private individual character (Lees-Jeffries, 18-19). And in the after-math of World War II, mathematician Alan Turing’s ‘bombe’, an electromechanical predecessor to the modern computer contracted for cipher decryption, would become the 20th century model for our faculty of reason (Hodges, 160-241).

Informed by functionalist Anglo-American philosophy (Block), from the mid-twentieth century first-generation cognitive science has furthered a technical theory of mind in which mental activities reduce to mathematical processes which observe universal, logical and formal rules. Through the 1980’s, and with extant traces continuing in art and culture, writings both specialized and popular have adopted a Turing-style machine as symbolic referent representing the mind as a computer, reason as a symbolic code, memory as stored data, understanding as computation, and knowledge as database (Lakoff, 257).

Let us critically examine the credentials of this Mind-as-Computer metaphor: (1) In assessing the subject and object of this metaphor, do we find that brain function parallels computer hardware and mind its respective software? Or, as program and device are produced by our enterprise and at our hand, do the form and function of such technologies logically mirror and inevitably extend from that of their authorial artisan? (2) At what point does the composition ‘x is like y because x and y have z in common’ become restrictive in a discourse intent on illuminating the topography of the human mind, and how analogous is the ontology of human thought with the topology of a computer? (3) Emphasizing rational operations, and postulating a disembodied abstract thought (Dummett), has this metaphor defined an opposition between traits commonly associated with (though not necessarily characteristic of) the masculine (mind, reason, knowledge, fact) and feminine (body, emotion, imagination, meaning)? Given such an antithetical relationship, does this metaphor display a phallocentrism in Western culture (see Gatens, 38-52)?

Employing cognitive archaeology, I trace and respond to the historical precedent of the Mind-as-Computer metaphor through a practice-based research. Crafting a multimodal visual essay (screenshots and textual inquiry), I endeavor to locate the initial creative act–an event of inspiration–in the process of composing work on the computer desktop.

With its etymological origins in the 13th century Old French enspirer (“to prompt someone to do something”) and Latin inspirare (“to breath into”), let us first define inspiration as a state of animated mind or cognitive arousal that impels creative activity. As most have empirically observed and annotated with an ‘aha!’, inspiration is a dynamic change in one’s typical or habitual modes of neuronal activation. Occurring when concepts learned in one domain of experience are re-deployed into a novel domain (see Churchland, 19-33), a state of inspiration is largely an act of self-appropriation during which memories of the places we have been, things we have done, and people we have known acquire new meanings and become active again in a new way. Variable in form, such activity may exhibit as the cognitive process of sorting neurally coded signals from the sensory organs, a response to internal or external stimuli through bodily gesture and movement or social communication and interaction, or the shaping of an object, art or technology. As an act of creation–of producing or causing some ‘thing’ to exist, be it thought, behavior or innovation–here it is the taking of an action that is paramount, and that qualifies one as being in an inspired state.

If we are to accept that the human mind has certain discrete characteristics that resemble those of a computer, where might we then visualize the imaginative and spontaneous, the creative and inspired amid processor, operating system and application?

Works Cited

Churchland, Paul M. Plato’s Camera: How the Physical Brain Captures a Landscape of Abstract Universals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012.

Bloc, Ned. “What is Functionalism?”. In N. Bloc, ed., Readings in Philosophy of Psychology, vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980; 171-184.

Dummett, Michael. Origins of Analytical Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Fodor, Jerry. The Language of Thought. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975.

–. Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Gatens, Moira. Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality. London: Routledge, 1996.

Hodges, Andrew. Alan Turing: The Enigma. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1983/2014.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. The Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Lees-Jeffries, Hester. Shakespeare and Memory. Oxford Shakespeare Topics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013.

Onians, John. Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki. London: Yale UP, 2007.

Pettegree, Andrew. The Book in the Renaissance. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 2011.

Plato. Theaetetus, 191C-191E, 194C-195A. Trans. Robin Waterfield. London: Penguin, 1987.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, I.5.95-104. In G. Blakemore Evans, textual editor, The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974; 1150.

Turing, Alan M.. “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem”. Proceedings of London Mathematic Society, 2nd. Ser., 42:230-65.

–. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”. Mind 59, no. 236: 433-60.

Images Cited
Dreamstime, (accessed May 25, 2014). Panel 2 desktop photograph from © 9george, ‘Close up of shiny blank slate’, photo taken February 12, 2014, ID#38151329. Photograph used with permission under the Dreamstime limited Royalty Free (RF-LL) license.

Artworks and essay © 2014 Devon Schiller. All rights reserved.

Category: Visual Essays