Let’s start in the mind of an early ancestor. This little guy has a few different sensory organs: a nose for smelling, tongue for tasting, eyes for seeing, and ears for hearing. Right now, his sensory organs are being stimulated. Photons pour into his eyes and the air moves around him in a gentle motion, stimulating auditory signals. He can feel the ground under his feet and smell the pine in the air.
The signals sent to his brain are stored as information in memory neurons. Let’s say he stops to sniff a bug. The chemicals absorbed through his nose are translated to smell when received by the brain. The scent information is stored and linked to the visual information currently being detected by the eyes. The two neurons are synapsed together meaning when one is activated, they both are. If he detects that scent again, he’ll also remember the image that he saw with it.
Let’s use the power of your brain in his situation. We’ll say you already have the scent and visual information (we won’t make you smell the bug) but now you hear someone say the word “grasshopper” and recognize the antenna and its yellow color. Very quickly, you have established a neural cluster branching from “that.”
One of those neurons will represent the image of “that,” another the smell, and then stored memory of color or language will link with it. You might even recall that movie with the grasshoppers, though now you are branching to another cluster with even more synapses already formed. Right now, you might be recalling a whole bunch of those neural paths in your own brain! Information that you have stored in memory is also called knowledge.
We have a natural tendency to form clusters of neurons so that the brain can be as efficient as possible and eliminate redundancies (multiple copies of information). No need to have a separate “red” for a fire truck and a stop sign, your brain synapses both clusters to the same color. I’ll refer to this tendency as organization and it allows us to learn more effectively.
When given information on a new object, you will store all of it organized together in a neural cluster. If another object is presented, you’ll keep the two clusters separated. This is helpful if one of the objects is food and the other, poison. Individuals that could not maintain organized clusters would likely be less likely to survive.
Neural clusters can be very easily lumped together if the individual synapses aren’t solidified often. If you don’t watch a movie repeatedly, you might only vividly remember a scene or two; the rest of the movie muddles together. The scenes you remember are most likely your favorites, meaning you probably thought about them a few more times to solidify the neural path.
You already know about your ability to recall very specific details from memory. Sometimes you only need a single neural path to activate loads more memory neurons. A single photograph can let you to fully relive a past moment in your life.
Of course, we can’t talk about the brain without mentioning pleasure. The Organism is encouraged to continue learning due to the release of pleasure when new synapses are formed. The easiest ones to form are to preexisting clusters, it’s easier to learn more about what we already know. The tendency toward synapsing more neurons to a cluster is called completion and it’s why we are curious.
Combining completion and organization gives us a drive to know more. The drive causes a detective to lose sleep at night when they can’t solve the case. The same drive causes you to want to know the joke when you hear all your friends laughing. If you have a part of a cluster, the possibility of gaining pleasure drives you to complete it. The more time spent thinking about the missing information, the more you tend to explore the memory to find out what you are missing.
Just like with a computer, more memory means more space to store information and functions for more efficient processing. Your only biological goal is to survive. As humans, we have huge banks of memory to use to our advantage to survive in this world. Learn about your surroundings to take control of your world.