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Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload


Stashed in: Brain, Awesome, Farnam Street, Memory, Memory!

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But we need a place (and a system) to organize all of this information.

The indexing problem is that there are several possibilities about where you store this report, based on your needs: It could be stored with other writings about plants, or with writings about family history, or with writings about cooking, or with writings about how to poison an enemy.

This brings us to two aspects of the human brain that are not given their due: richness and associative access.

Richness refers to the theory that a large number of the things you’ve ever thought or experienced are still in there, somewhere. Associative access means that your thoughts can be accessed in a number of different ways by semantic or perceptual associations— memories can be triggered by related words , by category names, by a smell, an old song or photograph, or even seemingly random neural firings that bring them up to consciousness.

Being able to access any memory regardless of where it is stored is what computer scientists call random access. DVDs and hard drives work this way; videotapes do not. You can jump to any spot in a movie on a DVD or hard drive by “pointing” at it. But to get to a particular point in a videotape, you need to go through every previous point first (sequential access). Our ability to randomly access our memory from multiple cues is especially powerful. Computer scientists call it relational memory. You may have heard of relational databases— that’s effectively what human memory is.

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Having relational memory means that if I want to get you to think of a fire truck, I can induce the memory in many different ways. I might make the sound of a siren, or give you a verbal description (“ a large red truck with ladders on the side that typically responds to a certain kind of emergency”).

So... Is the brain organized? Doesn't seem like it.

Random access and relational memory make me think the brain just stores information randomly. 

But maybe how we retrieve information is not so random.   Must ruminate.

Will you ruminate sequentially or randomly?

Spirally.

Good answer!

Depends on what you mean by "organize".  The brain "organizes" information by a graph of links between things.  Neurons and patterns on top of neurons.  I think that different people, for different topics, vary greatly in how organized their memories and minds are.  Some people seem to learn and experience things in a big flat space.  Others seem to have more of a nested context upon which to hang things.  The latter allows a lot more to be memorized a lot more easily.  The fact that our external memory storage has such poor user interfaces is the problem I've been focusing for years on as my personal research area.

Would external storage benefit from the same kind of organization as the brain?

Yes or sort of: What really counts is that the external storage is efficient to use.  Maybe it can be organized in a similar way, maybe in a way that maps efficiently, or maybe even that it provides organization that helps improve organization in a person's brain.  Memory palaces are one limited way to do this.  The main bottlenecks are the communication path and representation mapping mismatch.  I have a number of principles designed to take advantage of the human cognitive and sensory system to attempt to make this so.

Ok, so external storage being efficient means we should try to store as much as possible and let the organization do what it does best?

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