The comparison between the human brain and a computer is not a perfect one, but it does lend itself to some interesting lines of inquiry. For instance: what is the storage capacity of your brain?
The answer to the first question – how much storage space is there inside the average human head? – varies considerably, depending on who you ask. Some estimates come in as low as 1 terabyte, or approximately 1,000 gigabytes. These days, you can purchase an external hard drive with twice that capacity for under a hundred bucks.
The reasoning behind the 100-terabyte estimate has its flaws. It assumes, for example, that each synapse stores 1 byte of information. In reality, each one could conceivably store more or less than that.
Most of the computer chips that we use to model brain activity operate in this binary fashion – but the brain probably doesn’t work this way.
Consider, also, that synapses are often interdependent, and will rely on one another to convey a single piece of information. While it’s logical to assume that the brain’s extensive neural networks greatly improve its processing speed (a couple years ago, researchers writing in Science concluded that the number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second is “in the same ballpark [as] the 6.4*1018 instructions per second that human kind [could] carry out on its general purpose computers in 2007”), it’s also possible that they do so at the expense of storage capacity.
So, which is it? One terabyte? 100 terabytes? 2.5-thousand terabytes? Or can you fit an entire human consciousness into just 300 megabytes (approximately 60 3-minute MP3s), as suggested in an episode of Caprica? Perhaps these questions are irrelevant. As Reber himself says: “if your brain worked like a digital video recorder, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows.” We’ve already established that our brains don’t work like DVRs, or the vast majority of computers, for that matter, and so down the rabbit hole we go: how much brain-space does a memory occupy? Does a more detailed memory take up more space than a foggy one? Have forgotten memories been deleted, or have they been relegated to some forgotten subfolder in the dusty corners of your consciousness? Does a deeply rooted, subconscious bias take up more space than a transient dream? Is each encoded in different file format? And while we’re exploring the brain/computer/file-size/file-type metaphor: what is the cognitive equivalent of a GIF, anyway?
Perhaps a better question is whether the size of memories and the storage capacity of the human mind are things that can be measured at all. Reason would suggest that the brain’s capacity is, in fact, limited, and therefore can be measured. Determining what it’s limited by, exactly, and how to quantify those limits, would be a significant boon to fields as diverse as neuroscience, robotics and computer science – especially where the three overlap.