Machines are machines and, futuristic technology and science fiction notwithstanding, people are people. However, because machines are designed by and exist to meet the needs of people, they are often built with features and characteristics that are reminiscent of those found in their human creators. When it comes to the devices we call “computers,” memory is one of them. As different as human and computer memories are, their similarities are interesting and worth noticing.
Most computer users understand that these now ubiquitous appliances have two distinct types of memory. One is that used to process tasks as we do them (called RAM, it stores nothing but is what is needed to actually perform a task) and the data bank that stores things we need to save (called Hard Drive, its function is specifically and exclusively to store programs and data we wish to keep.) The approximate corollaries in the human brain are what we call our Short Term and Long Term memories.
A couple of simple examples will illustrate this comparison.
To drive a car, we need certain skills. The process of driving, in and of itself, uses our human equivalent of RAM. We are doing an activity and some degree of brain-power and immediate capacity is necessary. Remembering how to get from one place to the other is a different matter. That function requires the recall of specific data. We refer to that data as “directions.” That information is stored in our Homo-Sapien version of what, in a desktop, laptop or tablet computer would be referred to as Hard Drive.
To cook a meal, two types of actions are necessary. One must know how to use the appliances and tools (RAM) and then know how to prepare something – a recipe, for example (Hard Drive.)
In both examples, the basic skill/activity set needed to perform the essential operations (driving a car and negotiating the stove and other appliances and tools) require short term memory, a neural equivalent of RAM (Random Access Memory.) Our ability to use those skills in a functional manner are circumscribed by our ability to know how to what we want to cook and how to get to where we want to go. These tasks require a longer term memory capacity, our equivalent of data stored on a Hard Drive.
Humans are apt to want to try to increase both the RAM and Hard Drive capacities of their own minds. Many people do exercises intended to sharpen focus and precision of thought and action. These can be understood as attempts to develop better short term memory – The equivalent of adding some RAM to a computer.
It is also not uncommon for a person to try to do things to work at preserving long term memories and/or to increase one’s own memory capacity. This is tantamount to increasing the hard drive of a computer.
Most computer users value greater capacity in both realms. More RAM means that the computer will be able to process tasks, including multiple tasks, more quickly and efficiently. More Hard Drive allows for more information (data) to be stored or “remembered.” It is far easier to increase the capacity for either in a machine than it is to do so in a person.
Adding more RAM to a computer is a relatively simple technical task. Adding a second or larger hard drive is a technically simple matter as well. Adjusting the human mind, however, is complex and not-at-all simple. Human memory involves neurologically and biochemically complex processes that are not amenable to adjustment by adding a new memory ‘card’ or drive. While human and computer memory have some things in common, they are, at their cores, vastly different.
When it comes to memory, it is as though people have designed computers with the capacities for memory ‘upgrades’ that we wish were as readily possible with the human mind.