External Hard Drives for Our Brains? Smart Scientists Use Memory-Saving Tools

Neural pathways in the brain
Here, the brain’s neural pathways have been reconstructed using tractography, a technique for modeling dt-MRI data. Credit: NICHD/P. Basser

Did you know that your brain can store the equivalent of 80 terabytes of information? This amounts to 100 trillion data points, which is an enormous volume of data, even by today’s standards. Multiply this by the world’s population, 7.14 billion people, and you get the impressive picture: The human species has an incredible intellectual capacity!

Why, then, does it seem like our memory fails us so often?

The answers aren’t surprising, and sum up to one simple fact: we’re merely human. Save the lucky few who have photographic memories, the rest of us have to deal with the computing glitches inherent in human brains. Here are the major reasons why we forget, and some ways to minimize the impact on your laboratory work!


1. Failure to Store

There’s a distinct difference, as any listening expert will tell you, between hearing a fact and storing it for later retrieval. As the adage goes, information can easily pass into one ear and out the other if we aren’t actively trying to lock it down!

2. Retrieval Failure

Even if we succeed in storing information, our brains unfortunately aren’t the neatest of filing systems. What goes in haphazardly can be difficult to locate and retrieve. And even if we find the right snippet of information, it can take seconds or even hours to do!

3. Interference

When there’s so much information bouncing around in our minds, it can be hard to keep track of what goes where. Old facts can interfere with our learning new ones, and similarly, new information can make it harder to dig up old facts.


1. Active Listening

This addresses the failure to store information. Being more mindful about what you hear and processing it as it comes in, can do wonders for information storage! One great exercise that anyone can practice is to constantly be relating incoming information to what you already know. Not only does this lock down memories, but also connects them to the “cubbyholes” in your mind for easier retrieval later on.

2. Social Memory

Humans are built to be social, and for millennia we’ve used social support to store and retrieve information. Make the most of your social network by discussing new ideas with your friends and colleagues. Not only is this kind of collaboration a great way to develop greater understanding of the topic at hand, but also secures a deposit in your social knowledge bank. As an added benefit, sharing ideas helps strengthen your social ties, too!

3. Note-Taking and Other “External Hard Drives” for Our Brains

Comparing the brain’s storage capacity to a computer’s has one particular advantage; it’s the realization that if storage is limited, it may be time to get an external hard drive! There’s no shame in using tools to expand your own capacity for information storage and use. Even people with photographic memories take notes to organize their lives.

As a scientist with 80 terabytes of brain storage, but about a million tasks to keep track of in your life and at work, make sure you take advantage of as many memory solutions as you can! One of these tools is the electronic lab notebook, which truly acts as an “external hard drive” for all of your scientific needs.

To expand your scientific RAM, check out our website today for the latest electronic lab notebook offerings!

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