What Is the Memory Capacity of the Human Brain?

Fancied Facts
5 min readDec 12, 2019


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We have Herodotus to thank for coining the idea of “the Seven Wonders of the World,” which has prompted thinkers and promoters ever since to speculate about an “Eighth” wonder. However, the true answer to the question of the greatest Wonders is that which allows us to wonder about it and feel a sense of “wonder” at all — the human brain.

Our brain is, without question, one of the most wondrously complex things which we know to exist. The Renaissance saw an awakening of interest in the human mind, from Shakespeare’s humanist speculations in characters like Hamlet to Leonardo DA-Vinci’s drawing of Vitruvian Man, and less known depiction of the human skull and brain.

Enjoy our video about the Memory capacity of the human brain

Even after hundreds of years of modern psychological and anatomical study, scientists still have much to learn about the brain, from how it evolved to how it functions to how it stores memory. The latter point has come into focus even more in recent decades with the advent of computer research and the obvious need to store memory there. However, while the human brain is a natural starting point for thinking about how computers store data (just ask Isaac Asimov), your mind actually stores and accesses information very differently than your desktop — and here’s how.

How Computers Store Data

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Once the information codified by a collection of bytes is recorded, it is then stored onto a memory device with hardware that is able to store that information for the long term.

Neurons and Synaptic Connections

Our brains work a little differently.

They work to store memories and information with neurons, which are cells which, when excited via electrochemical means, store and trigger memories and data. There are some vital differences between these cells and others in our body. While division and replacement are key components to the life cycle of cells throughout our body, neurons are more permanent, and neither divide nor can typically be replaced in the event that they are deadened or destroyed.

Your neurons are made up of three main parts: the soma (the bulbous part containing the nucleus), dendrites (long thin branching sections which attach to other cell bodies), and an axon (an especially-long cellular section). Electrical pulses travel along the axon and a special connection point known as a synapse, which helps transmit signals between different cells.

This process is at the core of how your brain sends, receives, and ultimately stores information. To store a memory, the brain sends the information from its cortex area, where much of the brain’s nerve cells are housed, to the hippocampus. When we retrieve memories, the process works in reverse.

The average brain has roughly 86 billion neurons along with many neuroglia, which act as a support system of sorts for your neurons. Interconnectivity between neurons is key, with a single neuron capable of connecting with up to 10,000 others. These types of synaptic connections are at the core of how our brain is able to store and retrieve information, with different synapses firing together.

In Marcel Proust’s landmark novel In Search of Lost Time, the scent of a single madeleine cracker being dropped into tea evokes seven volumes’ worth of memories. In fact, sensory information such as olfactory stimuli can stimulate synapses to fire, thus triggering memories a la Proust.

Our Brain’s Capacity

So how do these two systems compare, and what does that mean for our brain’s total capacity?

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For one thing, as the above comparison demonstrates, while electricity plays a role in both systems, brains also make use of biological and chemical means in the electrochemical processes necessary to store and retrieve information. Computers store things in binary on/off settings. The human brain, by contrast, is far more complex, with more degrees of excitability than the binary settings used by computers. As it stands at present, computers tend to be capable of greater overall input and output, while the human brain still holds the edge in things like creativity, consciousness, and complex planning.

In areas such as language and movement, we are approaching a degree of convergence.

Furthermore, while computers require more memory chips or similar upgrades to add to their overall memory capacity, our brains require stronger synaptic connections.

That begs the question, though — what is the ultimate capacity of the human brain?

As pointed out by Scientific American, that’s a difficult question to answer, in part because measuring memory in a human sense is different from doing so for computers — partially because of that Proustian problem. Human memory isn’t as simple as a binary, on/off setting, but rather is an intricate, interconnected series of stimulated synapses firing and sending signals. It’s far harder to quantify.

What’s more, while computers store everything in terms of 1s and 0s, not all human memories are created equally. Some require more synapses and “storage space” than others.

Finally, while the old premise about us only using 10% of our brains may be a myth, thanks to new techniques of measuring memory, we can now say that our brain’s overall ability to store information is even greater than previously thought.

How much more?

While an exact account of our total possible brain capacity may be impossible at present, according to a study done by Stanford, our brain compares very favorably with even the most powerful modern computers. Our cerebral cortex is capable of possessing as many as 125 trillion synapses, which can store the equivalent of as much as 2.5 petabytes of total memory.

While computers are an incredible modern wonder of their own, the human brain remains uncontested as the single most powerful thinking machine in the world — and as we learn more, its power and capacity only become all the more wondrous to behold.



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