Temporal Data Storage in the Brain

In this post I’ll talk about how your brain’s way of storing information is different and better than how computers store information.

Scientists increasingly think of memory as a process rather than an object. They are concerned with studying how a memory is accessed rather than where it is stored. This is because while neurons are relatively static in space, they send and receive electrical signals with great temporal diversity. The behavior of neurons in time is much more informative than their location in space, so we’ve moved away from thinking about memories as objects, stored in discrete and separate locations. I am among those who think of memory recall as a reconstruction process. The neurons themselves are associated with minimal, basic information, but the temporal dynamics of the neural system reproduce the memory.

In contrast, there is nothing temporally dynamic about how a computer stores memory. Strings of binary representing information are stored on a hard drive. To appreciate how your brain’s method is superior, let’s examine an example. Think about your favorite song. You know the tempo, the rhythms, the lyrics, the melody, etc., and you can describe these characteristics for any time point in that song. In loose terms, a computer needs a string for each instrument, and each entry in the string corresponds to a time point. For just one song, your computer needs many strings of great length, taking up lots of space. But relatively few neurons could potentially encode multiple songs all by themselves because the information is being stored in time not space. 

If you have a lot of information, and little space, this is a stellar solution! It strikes me as a wonderfully bizarre solution though, because I never would have thought of it. If my clunky textbooks were taking up space on my desk, I never would have thought, “here, let me just store these in the temporal code of a dynamical system that takes up almost no space, and I’ll just stimulate the system whenever I need to access them.”

Bottom line: your brain is fundamentally different (and cooler) than a computer because computers store memory in 3 spatial dimensions, but your brain takes advantage of that 4th dimension which we call time to store memory. If you really want your brains turned inside out, you can go a step further and ask how time perception emerges from the time-dynamics of the brain. But that’s a topic for another day. Hope you found something to think about in there! Please shoot me any questions, ideas, comments, or critiques


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