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Human memory capacity equal to internet: so how much do we process the past?

The memory capacity of our brains is ten times that previously thought.


How does that make you feel?

I guess the first question is: how big or small did we think it was before – everything is relative and all that? Well, big. Very big. Now we think it contains a petabyte of data, which is a 1000 terabytes (think hard drives). So you can look at it two ways. Glass half full, we’re an incredible walking, breathing computer and should be privileged to be alive – at all, and at a time when it appears possible for man to calculate the power of his or her (their? – not getting into that debate now) own brain. Glass half empty, what the hell have we been doing squandering all that power; and for some, where the hell is all that power? I went downstairs this morning and forgot my own name, let alone what I was down there for!

A couple of things spring to mind.

Writers often concern themselves with memory. What we recall, how we remember, and what about the past was real and what is an embellished figment pieced together from a fragmented recollection? Everyone will have had the experience of an old memory suddenly coming back to them. An image of an old classroom, a beach where you went on holiday. When that happens I often wonder whether it’s all in there somewhere? Put us under hypnosis and huge swathes of our past would emerge in 4K HD. But what fascinates philosophers and writers even more is, even if those images, conversations, ‘videos’ of our remembered lives were there, how do we validate their authenticity? No one can go back and prove whether that was what our minds chose to remember or whether it is indeed an accurate representation of what happened. Do we, by design, bear false witness to the past because we remember only what it is useful to remember? This is no more evident than for painful memories, where our capcity to ‘forget’, bury or opacify the things that cause us distress is clear. But the opposite might equally apply to those memories that warm us, that project a positive image of where we have been? Do we package up the past in a way that merely enables us to better survive the future?Although a petabyte is a lot, it couldn’t capture a real-time video of 70 years worth of existence, hence our memory must be selective in some way. So how much can we believe of what it’s trying to tell us? Just how much of our past is processed?

[Insert PhD thesis here]

The second aspect is the question of untapped potential. Do we all have a roughly equal capacity for memory but only some are able to realise it’s full power? We know of the extremes of memory from photographic to amnesic. Are there levers we can pull to access those extra terabytes of capacity we’re currently not able to? I am sure that, to some degree, we can. Then the question arises as to when we might be able to pull on those levers? I would hypothesise this would be most effective when our neural networks are forming. Which inevitably brings us to education. We know children’s capacity to absorb information is prodigious (at least to our dull adult minds), so why isn’t that absorptive capacity maintained throughout life? Do we fail to push the right buttons? One for another time maybe. That’s if I remember.