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Memory full!

Publication Date : 24-08-2014


"Hot like ice, cold like fire,

Giving you a shock like a plug and a wire,

Cause people go crazy when the mics in my hand,"

These are lyrics from Young MC’s song Non Stop, and it may seem current given the Robocop reference, until you take into account that the original Robocop was released back in 1987, and you realise that Young MC hasn’t had a hit since 1989.

Yes, these lyrics are from 32 years ago, and yes, I can recite it and the rest of the three minute and twenty-seven second song from memory.

Which leads me to wonder: am I losing important memory storage space in my brain to rather insignificant song lyrics from my childhood?

Because I grew up on hip-hop, I have an encyclopedia of street knowledge and posturing all in my head. What if all those lyrics have deleted some precious childhood moments?

The human brain is definitely an incredible thing but there must be some limit to its capacity to retain memories.

Think about how our brains developed – and I’ll admit this is me floating theories as I’m not a brain surgeon or anything – but throughout human history we’ve led rather simple existences.

The basic knowledge we needed on a daily basis was probably where to get water, where to hunt, where the really nice berries were etc.

As for human interactions, humans existed in small groups. We probably only had to know a few people with names like Gronk, Urgh and Blart.

I don’t know if those are realistic caveman names, but the point is our brains were more than adequate for storing that little amount of information with ease.

But we no longer live in a world where harvesting the best berries is a key trait to look for in a mate.

We live in a world where all of the world’s information can be accessed from a device in our pockets, where we have contact with thousands of individuals on a daily basis through social media, where we are bombarded not just by song lyrics, but by images, stories, news, etc. Were our brains made to handle this much information?

Apparently, yes.

And no, it’s not because we aren’t using 90 per cent of our brains and can simply transfer information there. It is a myth that humans only use 10 per cent of their brains.

In fact, we use most of our brains, and to demonstrate just how important that functioning is, the brain only makes up about 3 per cent of our body mass but uses around 20 per cent of our total energy.

Brains are the ultimate internal hard drive – at least for now. Memories are formed by neurons connecting with other neurons.

This is how our brain physically stores our memories. Each brain consists of about one billion neurons, but we can have much more than a billion memories because each neuron can form about one thousand connections to other neurons, which adds up to over a trillion connections.

If we had to slap an understandable capacity on the human brain, Paul Reber, professor of psychology at Northwestern University says the brain has around 2.5 petabytes of storage space.

“Enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running for 300 years to use up all that storage,” Reber says. That’s a lot of song lyrics.

But what about the internet? Surely, sorting through the tidal wave of information whether it is news, tweets, or Facebook photo albums has to have some effect.

It turns out much of this stuff doesn’t make it into our memories because our minds weed them out. A 2011 experiment published in Science Magazine stated college students remembered less information when they “knew they could easily access it later on the computer”.

However, when it comes to sorting through information from social media, instant messaging, blogs and whatever else we’re staring at on the internet, Dr Erik Fransen, a professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology says it’s harder for the human brain to file this information into memory because it’s difficult to filter through it all. This can clog up the thought process with irrelevant information.

And then there is the case of Jill Price, a 42-year-old American who has a perfect memory.

She can remember what she ate the first time she went to a restaurant and what she wore, she can rhyme off the dates of important historical events as long as she found out about them at the time, and she can remember the time she missed meeting the makers of Sesame Street when she was four and every time she remembers her “boundless disappointment and rage”.

Jill Price can remember every disappointment as if it were yesterday. Our capacity for remembering is great, but maybe it’s our ability to forget and forge our own narrative out of our experiences that is our brain’s greatest gift.

In any case, it seems there’s plenty of room left in my head for song lyrics and a lifetime of memories.


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