BEFORE THE INVENTION of the computer, most experimental psychologists thought the brain was an unknowable black box. You could analyze a subject’s behavior—ring bell, dog salivates—but thoughts, memories, emotions? That stuff was obscure and inscrutable, beyond the reach of science. So these behaviorists, as they called themselves, confined their work to the study of stimulus and response, feedback and reinforcement, bells and saliva.
They gave up trying to understand the inner workings of the mind. They ruled their field for four decades.Then, in the mid-1950s, a group of rebellious psychologists, linguists, information theorists, and early artificial-intelligence researchers came up with a different conception of the mind. People, they argued, were not just collections of conditioned responses. They absorbed information, processed it, and then acted upon it. They had systems for writing, storing, and recalling memories. They operated via a logical, formal syntax. The brain wasn’t a black box at all. It was more like a computer.