But at least in humans there is presumably more going on. For it is quite common that we can immediately recognize that we have encountered some particular object before even if it is superficially presented in a quite different way. And what this suggests is that quite different patterns of raw data from our sensory systems can at least in some cases still lead to essentially the same representation in memory.

So how might this be achieved? One possibility is that our brains might be set up to extract certain specific high-level features—such as, say, topological structure in three-dimensional space—that happen to successfully characterize particular kinds of objects that we traditionally deal with.

But my strong suspicion is that in fact there is some much simpler and more general mechanism at work, that operates essentially just at the level of arbitrary data elements, without any direct reference to the origin or meaning of these data elements.

And one can imagine quite a few ways that such a mechanism could potentially be set up with nerve cells.

One step in a particularly simple scheme is illustrated in the picture below. The basic idea is to have a sequence of layers of nerve cells—much as one knows exist in the brain—with each cell in each successive layer responding only if the inputs it gets from some fixed random set of cells in the layer above form some definite pattern.

One step in a very simple model of the way hash codes for arbitrary data might be generated by layers of nerve cells in the brain. The response of a single layer of idealized nerve cells to a sequence of progressively different inputs is shown. Each nerve cell fires and yields black output only if the inputs it gets from certain fixed positions match a particular template. The sequence of outputs from all the nerve cells can be used as a hash code, whose value tends to be the same for inputs that differ only by small changes.

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