Human memory is a fascinating thing. For centuries human beings have been in awe of one another’s ability to recall information. It is hard to imagine now, but in days when the average person had limited access to historical information, histories were passed down orally. In such an early society it is easy to see the value in being able to demonstrate exceptional memory recall abilities.
Now we can just as easily outsource our memories to our smartphones, timers and other alerts that will make sure we have whatever information or reminder we could need in front of us, when we need it. And yet, we still hold our fascination with the human memory, with the feats that it is capable of, and how it acts as both a blessing and a curse in our everyday lives.
There’s No Effective Limit to the Amount of Information You Can Remember
We forget things all the time, and sometimes we might like to think that’s because we’re learning new stuff, which is pushing out old and unneeded information. However, this is not the case. We think of our brains often as being like computers and our memory as being like a hard drive, an area of the brain given over to storing things which can eventually be ‘filled’.
The latest research suggests that while this is, in a rather crude sense, an accurate assessment of memory, the limit that is placed on our brain in terms of the information that it can store is huge. Paul Reber is a Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, and he thinks he has the answer. Professor Reber puts the limit at 2.5 petabytes of data, that’s equivalent to around 300 years of ‘video’.
The Numbers Involved
Professor Reber bases his calculation on the following. First of all, the human brain consists of about one million neurons. What is a neuron? A neuron is a nerve cell which is responsible for sending signals around the brain. They help us to interpret the physical world from our external senses.
Each of the neurons in our brain forms roughly 1,000 connections to other neurons. With around one billion neurons in the human brain, this equates to over a trillion connections. Each neuron is involved in the recall of multiple memories simultaneously and this exponentially increases the capacity of the brain to store memories. This 2.5 petabytes of data represents 2 and a half million gigabytes, but with all this storage space, why do we forget so much?
We Have Only Just Learned How to Treat Memory Loss
Memory loss is a symptom of a number of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It can also occur following a stroke or head injury. We have only recently begun to understand these illnesses, and they have offered us a lot of insight into how memory works. It has taken a long time to reduce the stigma surrounding many of these neurological diseases, but it is now much better represented by patient care and consulting groups such as Insight Medical Partners. With greater advocacy and awareness, more research has been undertaken and better treatments devised.
Human memory is a truly fascinating and complicated phenomenon. The resemblance of our brains to a computer turns out to be a helpful image for considering the functions of the brain.