Human Memory Compared to Computer

Human brains’ cognitive functions and abilities of the neural system are enormous comparing to the majority of other mammals. Myriads of intricate connections of neurons and the plasticity of various brain structures underline humankind’s theoretical and practical achievements. Finally, the emergence of numerous cultures, complex societal arrangements, and tangible achievements of civilization are predetermined by this high performance of the human mind. The compartments of the brain compose an interrelated systematic composition; among the most important of its elements is memory. The faculty of “encoding,” “storing,” and “retrieving” is a significant feature of memory, revealing its relation to external data processing and use (Gilhooly et al., 2020, p. 178). Since scientific approaches frequently imply reducing an organ, element, or phenomenon to several coordinated parts, a description of memory as a composite mechanism exists. Namely, scholars discern sensory, short-term, and long-term variations of memory, which connected work produces the holistic perception and guides the thinking process (Gilhooly et al., 2020). Some compare human memory to computer storage systems and their consecutive work. Such comparison may help learn the memory mechanisms; however, the structure of human and computer memory is still distinctive.

The analogy between memory structure and computer workings is somewhat helpful for understanding the general operational process of the brain. Various concepts are better understood when compared to something with which a person is acknowledged already. Observance of computers processing data, constantly deciphered, collected, and revealed for a user, is available for most of the population. This simplification illustrates the divisible unites of memory: bites in computers and neural connections in the brain. Furthermore, such a comparison helps to visualize the memory itself and to schematize its work in particular. For example, one can imagine memory as a system with folders, files, and possible operations with them. Additionally, a memory path similar to a digital one may be derived. Not only is it useful for primary comprehension of remembrances’ structure but practical considerations, i. e., various methodologies of learning, as well. For instance, some people process their study material by connecting newly learned ideas to those existing in long-term memory, imagining the process like sorting out files on a personal computer. Thus, people, especially students, might benefit from comparing memory to computer storage since it is a valid simplification.

However, this approach may be disadvantageous if used for further study of memory. No matter how similar the processes performed by the computer and the brain might be, it is essential to understand that they are still different. A person who attempts to summarize any knowledge and aligning it entirely with an already existing one is in danger of indulging in misjudgment. For example, a computer operates with discrete units of data, those that could be quantified. Meanwhile, memories resemble somewhat messy knots of different types of information. In most cases, remembrances are not only words or smells, images, sounds but varied proportions of these in a range of inseparable knowledge pieces. Moreover, the memories may not be accessed promptly, through a path like in computers. Instead, an effort to restore one piece of information can result in recounting multiple random data since the brain’s work is relatively complicated. Therefore, brain processes are not identical with computer work; this should be considered by a learner comparing their operations.

Different types of memory deserve a separate analysis and comparison to a computer’s work. First of all, sensory memory serves as a precursor of any information acquisition and storage. According to Gilhooly et al. (2020, p. 179), this representation of memory comprises “a number of modality-specific sub-stores dealing with different types of input such as visual, auditory, haptic…, and olfactory.” The organs used by humans for collecting environmental information and other signals are similar to computer accessories such as a web camera or microphone. Then, brain structures processing the received data could be compared to driver programs. Although the likeness is apparent, differences underlie the organic and inorganic systems. Namely, human sensory memories disappear quickly while images, videos, and sounds recorded on the computer are safely stored for a long time (Gilhooly et al., 2020). Additionally, some humans can have unusual memory apparatus determined synesthesia conditions while computers generally work in the same way. Hence, the sensory memory resembles the additional devices of computers but is not equal to them.

In contrast, short-term memory is almost equivalent to the computer system of storing files or algorithms, not permanently. As such, RAM is responsible for ongoing processes in computers that do not need to be preserved since that would overload the device’s capacity. Human short-term recollections concern various types of information: everyday dialogues, daily tasks, telephone numbers, images of the locations at which a person is present. Yet, the main feature of these memories is evanescence; after the short period when they have been helpful, they would disappear to provide space for other data (Gilhooly et al., 2020). Nonetheless, as in the case of sensory memory, STM is more complicated than its computer analog: the brain can divide information into chunks and switch between them (Gilhooly et al., 2020). In brief, computers’ important components are RAM, similar to human STM, since they both handle ephemeral knowledge.

Long-term memory is consistent with the computer metaphor as well. The most approximate computer system that would retain information for further use is hard drive storage. Data deposited on a hard drive would not vanish from the computer until a user decides to delete it. The LTM works slightly differently; a person cannot consciously choose the information that they want to keep in their mind. Moreover, even LTM units are liable to deterioration since recollections that a person cannon apply in their life are useless and, consequently, deleted from the storage. Accordingly, LTM, like any other compartment of the human mind, is a sophisticated one that could be compared to computer mechanisms as a simplification.

Finally, the forgetting process is related to various computer processes and can be compared to several phenomena. For example, the decay of forgetting implies that the structure of the neural connection is damaged, causing the absence of memories (Sanderson & Huffman, 2019). The same could be said about defects or mechanical destructions of the computer’s hard drive that emerge over time and result in data loss. Likewise, source amnesia, a factor of forgetting responsible for the sensation of knowledge remembering without recalling the origin of it, is present in the computer system (Sanderson & Huffman, 2019). For instance, exited files rarely retain information about their initial owners or other sources. Again, computers reproduce some factors of forgetting intentionally and align with concepts like decay theory.

To conclude, the analogy of computer memory and human mind compartments is appropriate for people that only start to study memory composition. However, a closer look reveals fundamental differences present in the construction of both systems. Ignoring these differences may negatively impact the understanding of human memory work. Yet, the comparison is partly applicable when discussing sensory, short-term, long-term memory, and forgetting processes with their theoretical frameworks.


Gilhooly, K., Lyddy, F., Pollick, F., & Buratti, S. (2020). Cognitive psychology 2e (2nd ed.). McGraw Hill.

Sanderson, C. A., & Huffman, K. (2019). Real World Psychology (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.

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