Usually a small amount of thinking allows us to identify at least some regularities. But typically these regularities are ones that can also be found quite easily by many of the standard methods of perception and analysis discussed earlier in this chapter.

So what then does human thinking in the end have to contribute? The most obvious way in which it stands out from other methods of perception and analysis is in its large-scale use of memory.

For all the other methods that we have discussed effectively operate by taking each new piece of data and separately applying some fixed procedure to it. But in human thinking we routinely make use of the huge amount of memory that we have built up from being exposed to billions of previous pieces of data.

And sometimes the results can be quite impressive. For it is quite common to find that even though no other method has much to say about a particular piece of data, we can immediately come up with a description for it by remembering some similar piece of data that we have encountered before.

And thus, for example, having myself seen thousands of pictures produced by cellular automata, I can recognize immediately from memory almost any pattern generated by any of the elementary rules—even though none of the other methods of perception and analysis can get very far whenever such patterns are at all complex.

But insofar as there is sophistication in what can be done with human memory, does this sophistication come merely from the experiences that are stored in memory, or somehow from the actual mechanism of memory itself?

The idea of storing large amounts of data and retrieving it according to various criteria is certainly quite familiar from databases in practical computing. But there is at least one important difference between the way typical databases operate, and the way human memory operates. For in a standard database one tends to be able to find only data that meets some precise specification, such as containing an exact match to a particular string of text. Yet with human memory we routinely seem to be able to retrieve data on the basis of much more general notions of similarity.

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From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]