One of the most enduring tropes in science fiction is to reimagine and reexamine the human brain through the context of robotic ones. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, Data has “a positronic brain,” which, for plot and story purposes, functions much like our own. Data does not merely “upload” new memories, but “experiences” and “stores” them as his own distinct, individual “memory.”
The series never fully answers that, and understandably so. Not only is that a detail we don’t need story-wise, but it’s also a question we’re not yet able to fully answer ourselves. We still aren’t entirely sure how human memory works in all of its intricacies and interconnections. However, working backward, some scientists see technology and computers’ methods for storing data as a means by which we can imagine the way our own memory works.
How It Works in Tech
Recent studies involving tech teams tinkering with computer memory systems may hold part of the key to the answer. Computers store memories via circuits and coding, with different circuits doing so in different ways. These studies have discovered that certain computers systems were able to “remember” longer patterns by incorporating inhibitor circuits and associative data. Those inhibitor circuits help other circuits “remember” the optimal way to fire, in order to produce an effect similar to the desired ones preceding it, allowing this action to be replicated.
How It May Work with Us
Roughly speaking, the same may hold true for us. Our neurons, like computer circuits, fire and need to remember how to fire in certain ways in order to carry out functions. If our neurons are “programmed” the way computer circuits are, the associations we draw between certain sensations and memories may indeed help the former spur the latter. If the scent of a flower helps your neurons “fire” in such a way as to properly “remember” a past event connected with that scent, this can help explain how memories function in our brain.
As we continue to explore the nature of the brain, our understanding of our own “hardware” is sure to expand.