Monday, 25 January 2010

do our minds work like browser caches?


It occurred to me recently how to express my experience of how I learn and how our brains are capable of providing lightning fast access to so much of the info we hold in our heads.

I think the process might be similar to the methods used in hardware and software mainly because I think they evolved for the same reason.

I've always noticed that I get good at anything I do regularly and slowly get worse at things I do less regularly. Preparing for exams I can become an expert on a particular topic but soon after that knowledge takes longer for my brain to retrieve and I no longer have the confidence in every bit of it that I used to have.

This is exactly how web browser caches work. As you surf the web the browser starts saving the images and html files on your local machine so the next time you visit the page it can check if it's still the same. If so it saves time and processing effort by finding the page on disk instead of downloading from the web. This makes sense because it optimises the use of internet bandwidth and gets pages displayed quickly. My brain just seems to do exactly that. Make local copies of things. It also organises it's cache into the most commonly used items being faster to retrieve, less common items are slower to retrieve.

Normally, storing items for fast retrieval is expensive. For the browser it will take up disk space. I've noticed how my google chrome cache is 0.5gb!!! Yep that's seriously large. I don't delete it because I think that's a big part of why chrome is so fast and because disk space is relatively cheap.

In the brain I think a similar relationship applies. Memories that are easy and fast to retrieve normally have more connections to key parts of the brain than that are slower. These connections need energy and maintenance and so only so many can be maintained at any one time. So on a daily basis, mainly during sleep, these connections are continually made and broken to retune the cache based on recent needs.

The same happens for a web browser cache. It needs constant maintenance to ensure fastest access to the most commonly used items and is constantly being adjusted to provide the best balance between cost and performance.

In seeing my brain this way I find it gives me a strategy for optimising my mental perfrormance. It helps me figure out how to have information and skills at my beck and call in say a week or months time when I'm going to need them. I just optimise my cache.

It also explains why I constantly need to maintain my abilities, because I see that my brain will only maintain some info or skill high up in its cache if it think it's important. The way I tell my body it's important is through using the skill or info. That justifies to the body the expensive connections it's maintaining to the cell storing it.

It also explains partly why it's easier to relearn something you once knew well than to learn something from scratch. It's because the info has already been stored in a cell or group of cells but the connections to it have been reduced and thus it's in the cache but not easy or fast to access. So the only work necessary to move it up the cache priority is to access the memory, tell the body it's an important memory so that it will increase the connections to the memory and therefore easy to access.

There are loads of other examples I've thought about where hardware and software solutions to data access and speed seem to mirror physical and mental solutions.

I've described briefly how browser caches reflect memory retrieval. I then wonder whether the infrastructure that delivers the internet to the millions of devices connected to it is similar in some way to the infrastructure with our bodies that supports the billions of individual cells we all have. That's a topic for another post.
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