(Originally posted 16th May, 2004)
Have you ever stopped to wonder how we remember something? Is it more than just a random connection of neurons firing in our brains, or is there something else to it? And where is all the information stored?
I find mysellf constantly amazed with some of the stuff that I can remember. Somehow, information gets stored away in such a way that I can often bring back to my consciousness almost instantly when I need it.
This fact came to my mind when I was wandering a shopping centre last week. I saw a guy I hadn’t seen in probably three or four years. He’s not a friend, but I know him from the gaming conventions I used to go to. As soon as I saw him — which literally was just in passing in the supermarket — his name leapt into my mind.
How does that happen? I started thinking about how information can be stored in such way that even when it isn’t accessed for several years, it’s still available for split second recall as soon as it’s needed.
But there’s more to it than that. Somehow, I can remeber people’s faces and even if I haven’t seenthem in many years, I can still remember their names even if they have changed physically in the intervening time.
Trivia’s another thing that I find pretty easy to remember. I have no idea how I can remember this tuff, but I do find that certain words trigger recall of bits of information that do come in handy at times.
But there’s a lot of stuff that I find very difficult to remember. Shopping lists and small mundane day-to-day stuff just doesn’t seem to stick.
Is it just a function of importance? Are the things that we can remember easily tied to the things that we put the most stock in? Sometimes people wander through their whole lives without realising what’s most important to them, never connecting the fact that the most important things to them are the ones they have the most mental connections to.
Computer Science in recent years has developed artificial neural networks, computer programs that are created in the same way that the human brain works. Each element in the program takes a number of inputs and depending onthe values coming in makes some sort of decision and sends one or more values to the output. If you string a bunch of these objects together you can get the program making some intelligent decisions all by itself.
But is that all there is to memory? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that if memory was just a function of connections between neurons then eventually all of the connections in a human brain would be filled up and you couldn’t remember anything else without forgetting something. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. People, with the right prompts, can apparently remember everything that they’ve ever encountered; it’s just a matter of doing enough digging to be able to get the information out again — the right set of inputs if you will.
We’ve all got a precious thing in our minds, so regardless of the actual mechanics of how it works, let’s tip a glass to the mysteries of the human mind and how it can manage to remember stuff for us, whenever we happen to need it.