Is there a "unit" of memory? Some scientists now think so.
Using a method that allowed them to make brain measurements down to the millisecond levels, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology discovered that there's a discrete "quantum" of memory:
You're rudely awakened by the phone. Your room is pitch black. It's unsettling, because you're a little uncertain about where you are -- and then you remember. You're in a hotel room.
Sound like a familiar experience? Or maybe you've felt a similar kind of disorientation when you walk out of an elevator onto the wrong floor? But what actually happens inside your head when you experience moments like these?
[A new study] describes exactly how the brain reacts in situations like these, during the transition between one memory and the next. [...]
Their findings show that memory is divided into discrete individual packets, analogous to the way that light is divvied up into individual bits called quanta. Each memory is just 125 milliseconds long -- which means the brain can swap between different memories as often as eight times in one second.
"The brain won't let itself get confused," says Professor May-Britt Moser. "It never mixes different places and memories together, even though you might perceive it that way. This is because the processes taking place inside your head when your brain is looking for a map of where you are take place so fast that you don't notice that you are actually switching between different maps. When you feel a little confused, it is because there is a competition in your brain between two memories. Or maybe more than two."