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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Our Brains Have Nothing Like These 7 Things a Computer Uses to Store and Retrieve Data

It is commonly believed that when you recall something you are retrieving something stored in your brain. But none of our experiences suggest such a thing. When I retrieve an apple from my table using my hand, my body sends me two clear signals that my hand is doing the retrieval. The first is the touch sensation of my hand grasping the apple, and the second is the visual sensation of the apple in my hand. But when I retrieve a memory, my body does absolutely nothing to suggest to me that I am extracting this memory from my brain.

But our neuroscientists like to claim that our memories are stored in our brain. There is a way to test this claim. I will review each of the things that a computer uses to store and retrieve data, and in each case I will ask: is there something like that in the brain? I will use pretty much the simplest example of data storage and retrieval I can think of: the storage of a small file containing a few words of text. Below are the things that a computer uses to store and retrieve such information.

Item # 1: An Operating System

Besides applications that do specific things, a computer has what is called an operating system that does various low-level tasks. Bill Gates originally made his fortune by selling the MS-DOS operating system that was the first high-selling operating system used by personal computers. Nowadays if you have a desktop computer you may be using some Windows operating system such as Windows 10, or some Apple operating system. An operating system is a highly complex and coordinated base of code that serves as a kind of foundation for applications that are built to leverage that operating system.

As far as we know, the brain has no such thing as an operating system. There are particular genes that list the amino acid constituents of particular brain proteins, but those structural proteins are like hardware, rather than the software that is an operating system.

Item # 2: An Application to Store and Retrieve Data

While it is possible to store a small amount of data on a computer merely using a nerdy command-line string of characters, almost no one does that to store text data. Instead, 99% of the time someone will use an application to store data. An application is a program that does some specific type of work, typically by leveraging the functionality in the operating system. A person using a Windows operating system might use an application program such as Notepad, Wordpad, or Microsoft Word to store text data.

As far as we know, the brain has no such thing as application programs. No one has ever given a coherent description of how storing information to the brain would involve making use of “how to” instructions stored elsewhere in the brain, some set of instructions that could be compared to an application program.

Item # 3: The ASCII code for Encoding Information

Text is never directly written to a file stored on your computer's hard drive or a zip-drive. If, for example, you were to break apart your computer's hard drive (or break apart a small zip drive), and look at its contents in a high-magnification microscope, you would never see little tiny “a,” “b,” and “c” characters. What actually happens when your text data is stored is this: (1) the ASCII code is used to convert each of your text characters into a number; (b) those numbers are then converted from decimal into binary; (c) the binary information is then stored on your computer's hard drive or a zip drive. The ASCII code consists of a table in which each character is represented by a number.

Does the brain have anything like this? As far as we know, it does not. The ASCII code is an example of an encoding protocol, and no one has ever been able to discover any encoding protocol used by the brain to store information.

Item # 4: A Decimal to Binary Conversion Table or Utility

The ASCII code merely converts letter to decimal numbers, numbers that use the Base 10 system. But computers store information using binary code, and when binary is used, numbers are stored using the Base 2 system. So rather than directly writing text represented in the ASCII code, an application must convert from decimal to binary.

This is another encoding protocol that does not correspond to any functionality known to exist in the brain.

Item # 5: A Medium That Allows a Permanent, Stable Storage of Information

When a computer has all the bits needed to write, it must have a stable medium to write to. Some of the earliest stable media to write to were clay (used in writing cuneiform), parchment, and paper. Nowadays computers use a stable medium such as magnetic disks.

Does the brain have anything like this – some medium allowing a permanent, stable storage of information? It would seem not, at least nothing that could be used by the brain to store memories that last for years. The main assumption during the past decades has been that memories are stored in synapses. But synapses are an unstable “shifting sands” type of medium subject to high molecular turnover and structural turnover. As discussed in detail here, rapid molecular turnover in synapses should make them unsuitable for storing memories that last longer than a year. But humans are able to remember many memories for 50 years or longer. As a scientific paper puts it:

Experience-dependent behavioral memories can last a lifetime, whereas even a long-lived protein or mRNA molecule has a half-life of around 24 hrs. Thus, the constituent molecules that subserve the maintenance of a memory will have completely turned over, i.e. have been broken down and resynthesized, over the course of about 1 week. 

The DNA inside neurons is a stable medium for permanent information storage, but it doesn't seem to be used for storing our memories. Our DNA has been exhaustively studied by projects such as the Human Genome Project and the Encode project. No one has discovered the memories of any particular human in that human's DNA.

Shockingly, there seems to be no plausible candidate for a particular component in the brain where the brain could be storing memories that last for decades. Neither synapses nor DNA is such a plausible candidate.

Item # 6: A Storage Location System by Which the Exact Position of a Data Item Can be Specified, Allowing Fast Retrieval from an Exact Location

When a computer stores data on a hard drive or zip file, it's not similar to adding to a heap, something similar to pouring another cup of water in a swimming pool full of water. It's always rather like putting some new papers in a particular file of a filing cabinet. This is so that information can be retrieved rapidly. You can get papers from a file in a file cabinet quickly, but it would take you way too long to get that information if you just had some giant heap of papers in the middle of your office.

So whenever your computer stores data, it has some idea of a specific location where this data will be saved. For example, you may store your little text data in a file called SaturdayNote.txt in a folder or directory called MyTextFiles. That gives the computer a way to retrieve this information quickly, by first going to that particular folder or directory, and then searching for the file named SaturdayNote.txt file in that particular folder or directory.

Does the brain have any type of similar system for storing information in specific named locations? As far as we know, it does not. It's hard to conceive of how such a thing could possibly exist in the brain. The brain is more like a tower-sized ball of tangled spaghetti than some city with labeled streets. There seems to be no way in which a brain could ever know exactly where some data was that it was storing. Neurons don't have any coordinate system allowing anything to tell a precise location in the brain.  If your brain somehow wrote some information to a brain position of X=2345, Y=24342, Z=73252, there would be no way for the brain to record that exact position in a way that would allow that exact location to be quickly accessed. Writing some information to the brain would seem to be like writing on some index card, and throwing it into the middle of an Olympic-sized swimming pool full to the brim with index cards.  Under such a setup, instantaneous retrieval of some precise information should be impossible.

Item 7: Read/Write Functionality Allowing Data to Be Written to a Specific Location and Also Read From the Same Location

The discussion under Item #6 above was purely a discussion of an organizational system in which some data can be given a location for it to be stored. A separate requirement is that data can be written to a storage medium, and also read from that storage medium. The reading and the writing must occur in a very consistent way, so that the data read is exactly the same as the data written.

Your computer has one or more systems capable of such read/write functionality. For example, a hard disk in a computer is a read-write device. Below is a photo showing some of the rather complicated hardware involved. There is a a read-write arm which can move back and forth in a particular line, and also a spinning disk underneath that arm. At the end of the read-write arm is a read-write head that can read data when it is above some particular location. With the combination of these two things, the system can read and write from any desired location on the disk. 

Does the brain have any such read-write functionality? Some think that what is called long-term potentiation acts like a write system for storing memories. But the term long-term potentiation is very misleading. Long-term potentiation (LTP) is actually a very short-lived effect, almost always lasting less than a few weeks. The brain may have some kind of system for writing something that will last a short time, rather comparable to someone writing in the wet beach sand with his fingers. But there is no known write mechanism by which the brain could permanently store data.

When it comes to read functionality, we know of no mechanism at all for such a thing. There seems to be absolutely nothing in the brain similar to the read-write head of a hard disk, something that might allow the brain to “zoom in” and read from one particular location. A system has to be organized in a very specific way for read-write functionality to be possible, and the brain seems to be organized in no such way.


Our neuroscientists tend to dogmatically speak as if our memories are all stored in brains, but this is more of an ossified dogma rather than a truth determined by observations. Neuroscience itself undermines such a doctrine, by indicating that there is no stable component that the brain could be using to store memories lasting decades. Comparing the brain to a computer, we find that the brain has nothing like any of the 7 main things that the computer uses to store and retrieve data. But our minds recall obscure information instantly, and a single phrase may get you to instantly recall some old tune you have not heard in 50 years (as recently happened to me).

The discussion above should be very discouraging to anyone who hopes to explain how brains could achieve the memory capabilities of human minds. To such a person I must merely say: you're barking up the wrong tree. The feats of our minds cannot be explained solely in terms of the brain. We must postulate some psychic or spiritual component to account for the feats of our minds, something beyond the brain. Such a thing is needed to account for the wonders of psychic phenomena, and is also needed to account for the ordinary marvels of the human mind such as the instantaneous recall of childhood memories. 

Postscript: We may imagine the following conversation between a curious young boy and a distracted mother walking on the street. 

Boy: Mommy, who made the clothes I wear? And who made the TV shows I watch? And who made the cars I see? And who made the street lights?  

Mother:  The answers are simple, my son. They are: Santa Claus, Santa Claus, Santa Claus, and Santa Claus.

We can also imagine a similar conversation between a philosopher and a neuroscientist.

Philosopher: From whence comes that hint of the transcendent we feel when we look at a sky ablaze with stars?  From where do our loftiest ethical principles arise? Why do we lie awake and ponder the weightiest riddles of existence? How do we ever grasp the most abstract notions such as the idea of the universe and the eternal laws of nature?

Neuroscientist:  The answers are simple. They are: neurons, neurons, neurons, and neurons.

Such simplistic answers are convenient, but should we not suspect such complex questions have equally complex answers?