But what about the fact that we routinely retrieve from our memory not just data that matches exactly, but also data that is merely similar? Ordinary hashing would not let us do this. For a hashing procedure will normally put different pieces of data at quite different locations—even if the pieces of data happen in some sense to be similar.

So is it possible to set up forms of hashing that will in fact keep similar pieces of data together? In a sense what one needs is a hashing procedure in which the hash codes that are generated depend only on features of the data that really make a difference, and not on others.

One practical example where this is done is a simple procedure often used for looking up names by sound rather than spelling. In its typical form this procedure works by dropping all vowels and grouping together letters like "d" and "t" that sound similar, with the result that at least in some approximation the only features that are kept are ones that make a difference in the way a word sounds.

So how can one achieve this in general?

In many respects one of the primary goals of all forms of perception and analysis is precisely to pick out those features of data that are considered relevant, and to discard all others.

And so, as we discussed earlier in this chapter, the human visual system, for example, appears to be based on having nerve cells that respond only to certain specific features of images. And this means that if one looks only at the output from these nerve cells, then one gets a representation of visual images in which two images that differ only in certain kinds of details will be assigned the same representation.

So if it is a representation like this that is used as the basis for storing data in memory, the result is that one will readily be able to retrieve not only data that matches exactly, but also data that is merely similar enough to have the same representation.

In actual brains it is fairly clear that input received by all the various sensory systems is first processed by assemblies of nerve cells that in effect extract certain specific features. And it seems likely that especially in lower organisms it is often representations formed quite directly from such features that are what is stored in memory.

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