Can We Reach a Memory Limit in Our Brain?

Thinking about studying languages, I’ve wondered how many words we can actually remember. The average person these days seems to know about ten thousand words, which is apparently less than in the past. But for those of us who are studying more than one language, can we reach a limit?

There are polyglots who can speak many languages fluently. So, I have to imagine that we can remember a large number of words. And we are always developing new memories, though old ones tend to fade. Is that just new memories replacing old ones? Or just a degradation of memory due to the lack of use? But then, there are people who remember details from when they were very young that no one else can remember. And those who can remember detailed maps and navigate using that built in mental Google Maps (me!).

Well, it turns out that we know the limit. The memory capacity of the human brain is at least one petabyte, but easily more. How much is that? World of Warcraft uses 1.3 petabytes to maintain itself. It would require 2000 years to listen to 1 petabyte of mp3 files.

So, I guess we should have no problem learning several hundred languages. The only problem is time.


6 thoughts on “Can We Reach a Memory Limit in Our Brain?”

  1. Good topic, sir! I don’t think the issue necessarily lies with how much potential the brain has for storage of information (your peta byte). The biggest problem with memory- in a computer or in the human brain (unless there is physical damage) is retrieval — aka remembering things. How it gets stored initially matters a good deal, and repetition helps create a path to retrieve it.
    The more senses we involve while we study improves our ability to remember, again, laying down neural pathways! Becoming involved in the process – making up games, songs, rhymes, etc. – also increases the ability to recall/remember.
    My memory isn’t what it used to be, for sure. Having so many tools around has made me pretty lazy!

    1. Yes, I completely agree. And the way our brain rewires itself into new pathways locks away some memories. They’re there, just inaccessible temporarily. But many memories fade. It’s a natural degradation of the memory. Of course, it’s only recently that we’ve finally understood how memories are stored in the brain.

  2. It seems that memories are more likely to persist if they are used. If they aren’t, they tend to get pruned. If one really wants to keep a large number of languages accessible in memory, it helps to use them on a regular basis.

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