Computers, humans, memory, and experience

Have you ever spent a lot of time on an activity, fallen asleep after holding out as long as you possibly could, and then ended up having a dream about the very activity you were doing? Now in most cases, a dream of this sort isn't very exciting or interesting. And it's not one you'd usually share. Sometimes, however, the seemingly simple dream can be a segue to something so much more. This morning I awoke from just such a dream.

Last night my brother and I went to the movies to see The Bourne Ultimatum. Though we returned home well after midnight, the action and intensity of the movie had me wide awake. Unable to sleep I booted up my computer and began playing World of Warcraft. I played the gave for a few hours and then headed to bed once my eyes began to get heavy. Once asleep, my brain slipped back into the state it had been while I was awake and I began to dream that I was playing World of Warcraft. Only there was one subtle difference.

When I began playing in the dream world, it was using a different account and a different player than my own. I didn't know who's account I was on, who's character is was playing, but it was a dream and I never thought anything of it; I simply played on as if nothing were wrong. When I woke up, rather than having the expected "maybe I should play less if I'm dreaming about it now" thought, I began to surprisingly philosophical thoughts springing from the seemingly inconsequential dream.

I thought less about playing that character and more about being that character. I was very intrigued by the idea of existing in the game, knowing and having an understanding of all the spells and abilities my character had, and yet knowing nothing about the experiences involved in earning those spells and abilities. I thought of it in terms of the differences between memory in human brains and the memory in computer hard disks.

We always grow up with the idea that our brains are like super advanced computers and modern scientists are constantly trying to create smarter and smarter computers that are capable of "human-esque" learning. However, there is a significant and fundamental difference between the way a computer catalogs data and the way our brains catalog memories.

A computer absorbs information without bias, and without care really, for the source and reasoning for the data. The world is simply a series of charts, databases, failures, and successes. When a quadrupedal robot "learns" to walk, it hasn't truly "learned" anything. It was programed with the task of moving forward, began making random movements, and then compiled a database of "movements that accomplish nothing" and a database of "movements that create forward momentum". Furthermore, a computer program like the servers of Wikipedia have endless "knowledge" stored within them, however that data means absolutely nothing to the machine. All the computer knows is how to store 26 characters, 10 numbers, and several symbols. It knows nothing of experience.

The human brain on the other hand, knows only in experience. The data itself comes almost secondary to living through the intake of said data. As humans we tend to learn through our emotions. This is why things that are funny, sad, or interesting are so much easier to remember than things that don't interest us. This is why we do so much better in the school subjects that we like than in the classes that we don't care about or are forced to take. Scientists may one day discover that our brains have cataloged and stored every single piece of data that has entered them, much like a computer, but that will still not change the fact that we will never be able to "remember" that data. That is unless the experience was significant in some way.

That is because data, without experience, is just noise.

(image borrowed from

posted by Christopher Schnese