Human Memory and Computers

It is easy to see why people often make comparisons between our human memory and computers. In fact, comparing the human memory to a computer is only the latest comparison. For years researchers and scholars have made comparisons between the human mind and whatever was the most advanced technology of the time. For example, “in Beyond the Brain, cognitive scientist Louise Barrett collects a few: Socrates said the mind was a wax tablet; John Locke said it was a blank slate where sense impressions are written; Sigmund Freud thought it a hydraulic system yearning for release” (Baer, 2016, para 4). In some ways those comparisons are accurate, but those comparisons can only go so far.

There are many advantages and limitations to the human memory being compared to a computer. In my own life some of the advantages to this comparison are it has made it easier for me to understand how the memory works; however, there are limitations to this comparison because it does not account for human experience on the memory. Computers do not have feelings or past experiences that could affect memory.

When we look at the basic functions of the brain there are comparisons to computers. Sensory memory applies to this comparison because it is the first step in the memory process. Sensory memory is often compared to typing on a computer. Typing on a computer is the input phase. Sensory memory is also the input phase for our memory. Sensory memory is what we hear, see, and touch and it does not last long before it is sent to the next phase in memory. Short term memory is the second step in the memory process. The short term memory only holds memory before sending them off again. Short term memory compares to a computer because if the short term memory does not send its information often then we will forget those memories. This is like a computer in that if it does not process incoming information fast enough then the computer will start to run slower. The third phase of memory is long term memory. Long term memory is the storehouse of all are memories. Long term memory compared to a computer would be the hard drive with a huge amount of terabytes. The short term memory is the search bar to go through all the long term memories. Like a computer all the parts in are brain and how we remember things have to work together for anything to work (Sanderson & Huffman, 2017).

When it comes to forgetting there are more differences between human memory and computers. The theories of forgetting are decay, interference, motivated forgetting, encoding failure, and retrieval failure. The theory of decay states that memories are in physical form and over time they die off. Like our memory, computers over time will start to decay and their parts get older and stop working properly and begin to not be able to function correctly. However, when looking at the interference theory there are differences. The interference theory is “forgetting is caused by two competing memories, particularly memories with similar qualities” (Sanderson and Huffman 2017, para 6). This theory I believe does not support that human memories are like computers because computers are able to process multiple things at once without losing information. For example, if a computer is downloading multiple updates at one time it can do that without losing any information/memory.

Another factor involved in forgetting is misinformation. As humans, if we receive misinformation during the encoding, storage, and retrieval phases of our memory it can dramatically affect how we remember something. Our memories are not like computers when it comes to misinformation. Computers don’t have outside factors contributing to what they think. They are programed to run a certain way and have a limited memory capacity. “In contrast, the brain never seems to report a “memory full” error, even after a lifetime’s experience. If human memory operated like an information data warehouse it should have a clear maximum capacity” (Whitworth & Ryu, 2009, pg. 234).

Computers don’t change the way the store information based on emotion. Sometimes humans forget information for a reason (Sanderson & Huffman, 2017). Our brains may change the way we remember something depending on how unpleasant it was. When we experience very traumatic events we can change the way we remember those events and sometimes even forget experiences all together. In the case of computers, once the information is stored in the memory it doesn’t change depending on emotions like stress, anxiety, or fear.

Additionally, computers do not make connections between information stored in memory. The items put into the computer memory can be put in separate files and categorized by specific topics with no connection. Our memories, on the other hand, are not all separate pieces of information. According to the article, “A Comparison of Human and Computer Information Processing,” memories are not stored in just one place like a computer (Whitworth & Ryu, 2009). They are connected by the experiences we live. People also do not react the same way to an experience. So the information stored will be different. We cannot save a copy of the same memory in each person’s brain. This is also impacted by our beliefs and culture. Since we are living beings we are constantly exposed to new information. We do not have an off switch like computers do when they are not accepting and manipulating new information. Our memories and brains don’t turn off even when we are sleeping.

The computer analogy to the human brain is a simplistic way to understand how the brain works. But there are many things that are not same in how the brain works and how a computer works. We interact with our environments in a way computers cannot and “each of us is truly unique, not just in our genetic makeup, but even in the way our brains change over time” (Epstein, CITE). So, human brains are just too complicated and complex to be fully compared to computers.   

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