Why human memory is not a bit like a computer’s

DisintegrationofPersistence(This is a cross-post of a 3 Quarks Daily article I wrote last year.)

A few months ago I attended a rather peculiar seminar at MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. A neuroscientist colleague of mine named Robert Ajemian had invited an unusual speaker: a man named Jim Karol, who was billed as having the world’s best memory. According to his website, his abilities include “knowing over 80,000 zip codes, thousands of digits of Pi, the Scrabble dictionary, sports almanacs, MEDICAL journals, and thousands of other facts.” He has memorized the day of the week for every date stretching back to 1AD. And his abilities are not simply matter of superhuman willingness to spend hours memorizing lists. He can add new items to his memory rapidly, on the fly. After a quick look at a deck of cards, he can recall perfectly the order in which they were shuffled. I witnessed him do this last ‘trick’, as well as a few others, so I can testify that his abilities are truly extraordinary [1].

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How many minds can one organism have? (Answer: One.)

I was asked this question on Quora:

Do the two halves of the brain have wills of their own? Can they dislike each other or fight?

Here’s my answer:

It’s very difficult to define what exactly the will is in neuroscientific terms. It seems best to reserve this word for the whole organism, rather than some part of it.

Some philosophers would say that attributing will to some sub-component of an organism is an example of the “mereological fallacy”. It’s like saying the stomach eats, or the brain thinks, or the legs walk. We use these kinds of phrases as a kind of poetic shorthand, but only a complete organism can be said to eat, think, or walk.

In the case of the two hemispheres, we also know that the left brain right brain story — that one is “rational” and the other “holistic/artistic” — is wildly misguided. Some neural processes are lateralized, but most normal tasks that humans perform require close integration and communication between the hemispheres.

But we do have to make sense of a common experience — being “in two minds” about something. Most people know what it is like to be in a conflicted state — multiple goals or biases seem to be tugging at us. Clearly decision-making involves a sort of “parliamant” in the brain, in which multiple vested interests vie to enact legislation that suits them. 🙂

But the parliament metaphor should not be taken too seriously. There is little to be gained in anthropomorphizing neurons or groups of neurons. Neural ensembles might sometimes seem to behave as if they have a will, but that idea will not really help us understand decision-making, or the subjective feeling of having a will.

So brain areas don’t have likes or dislikes — organisms do, and brain areas mediate the processes by which these likes and disliked become manifest.

For more on the problems with anthropomorphizing neural processes, see these two essays I wrote:

Persons all the way down: On viewing the scientific conception of the self from the inside out | 3 Quarks Daily (This essay is partly a gentle critique of the Pixar movie Inside Out.)

Me and My Brain: What the “Double-Subject Fallacy” reveals about contemporary conceptions of the Self | 3 Quarks Daily (This essay explores the tendency of people, including neuroscientists, to think of the brain is a separate agent from the person as a whole.)

I admit that it is often fun to anthropomorphize neurons, which is what I do in the essay below. I paint a picture of a neural city and a neural economy, complete with start-ups and investors. 🙂

Be Careful What You Wish For: Some Wild Speculation on Goodhart’s Law and its Manifestations in the Brain | 3 Quarks Daily

Further reading

Yohan John’s answer to Is the left brain and right brain concept a myth, or is it true?

Yohan John’s answer to What happens to consciousness when the brain’s two cerebral hemispheres are disconnected?

A Clockwork Orange? (A brief musing on the concept of a neural “code”)

I was asked this question on Quora:

Are there many layers of neural codes from the human retina to the optic nerve and the optic nerve to the brain, or are they essentially same signals relayed?

Here’s how I responded:

Here’s a question: in a system composed of clockwork, is there a “code”?

I ask this because I find that the “code” metaphor is often misleading when thinking about biology. Codes are composed of symbols. But it is not clear that neurons communicate using symbols.

The way a neuron affects other neurons is more like how a gear affects other gears. There is no code — there is causality. An active neuron releases some neurotransmitter, and this in turn makes other neurons more active. It’s like a complex network of dominoes.

Does the idea of a “code” help us understand how one domino affects the next one in the chain?

I admit that by the time a human is thinking in terms of words and symbols, “code” is probably a useful metaphor for what is going on. But the origin of coding schemes remains a great mystery in neuroscience, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. So I recommend starting with a much less loaded metaphor, such as clockwork or dominoes. Thinking in mechanical terms helps us realize what exactly neuroscience and AI research are trying to achieve.

For now, there is a fascinating gap in our understanding of what exactly codes are in the first place.

Anyway, if you are interested in the causal “domino effect” that starts at the retina, have a look at this answer:

Yohan John’s answer to In which format is information stored in the brain?