How Many Bits of Information Can The Brain Process?

This article uncovers how many bits of information the brain processes every second. It will also cover various theories regarding the processing strategies and capacity of the brain, as well as some frequently asked questions about the brain.

How Many Bits of Information Can The Brain Process?

The human brain can process up to 11 million bits of information per second. This is the natural processing capacity of the brain, including the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious mind. However, the conscious mind has a very limited capacity and it can handle anything from 40 to 120 bits of information in a second.

Since the information that is incoming to us is usually so large, our brains can sometimes make use of cognitive shortcuts that can cause unconscious or implicit bias. This may have serious consequences on how we perceive others and act towards them. 

If we process all the information, it will be too much for us to handle at once. Moreover, it would be nearly impossible to process all the information incoming at us in a logical, rational manner. Or we’d be questioning every decision we make. Thus, the human brain takes cognitive shortcuts and sometimes makes decisions on the basis of heuristics, aka “rules of thumb”.

The memory capacity of an adult human brain on average is trillions of bytes of information. It has been reported that the cerebral cortex in the brain alone has 125 trillion synapses. Studies have found that one synapse can store around 4.7 bits of information.

Neurons are the brain cells that process and transmit messages in the brain, while synapses are the bridges between neurons that connect neuronal pathways and help in the transmission of messages across the brain. Thus, if we calculate the numbers of 125 trillion synapses and 4.7 bits of information per synapse, it rounds up to about 1 trillion bytes of information in the brain, i.e. 1 TB (Terabyte).

Researchers had expected that the average human brain would possess a tremendous capability to process information. When researchers sought to measure this information processing ability when assessing intelligence or conscious activities like reading, or playing instruments, they came up with the estimate of our conscious mind being able to process 50 bits of information per second. 

For instance, we read about 300 words per minute, which means we read about 5 words per second. If an average of 5 characters is per word, and we know each character is assumed to be 2 bits of information, it generates a rate of 50 bits per second. 

The exact number of information processed depends on the person performing the task as well as what task is being performed. However, it is important to note that our senses collect 11 million bits of information per second from the environment. 

The table below shows the information transmission rates of the five senses. 

Sensory SystemBits per second
eyes10,000,000
ears100,000
skin1,000,000
smell100,000
taste1,000

The table above tells us that the human body sends about 11 million bits of information per second to the brain, out of which the conscious mind only processes about 50 bits per second! Hence, there is a huge amount of compression taking place where 11 million bits of information is being reduced to about 50 bits or less.

The discrepancy of the amount of information processed by the human body is so large that the inaccuracies, if any, in the measurements is considered to be insignificant. 

Challenges to Understanding the Approach of Information Processing

There are two problems that come along with when we think about information compression. 

I. How long does it take to do the compression?

II. Where is the processing power that is involved in doing this much compression?

The answer to the first problem is that there is an approximate half-second delay between the moment the senses receive a stimulus and the moment the conscious mind feels a sensation. This delay is compensated by the body’s reflex system which has the ability to respond in less than one-tenth of a second before the mind is even conscious of the stimulus. 

This half-second delay is considered to be the time required for compression of the sensory input received by the brain from the senses.

The answer to the second problem is that there are about 100 billion cells in the brain, each of which is connected with thousands of other brain cells. Thus, this helps the brain have many processors to execute about 100 billion operations per second. This capability of the brain is beyond impressive.

The brain also has separate systems for storing short-term and long-term memory. According to Miller (1956), adults can hold upto 5 to 9 items in their short-term memory. It is usually believed that the short-term capacity of humans is around 7 plus or minus 2 items. Short-term memory can last from about 20 to 30 seconds or less according to the Information-Processing Model of Memory put forth by Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968).

Long-term memory has a greater capacity, but it is not well understood how much the brain stores information in it, or what are its limits.

Conclusion

The article highlights how marvellous the brain is, and how extraordinary capabilities it has beyond our imagination. As more studies are being done on the brain, we will soon be able to understand and comprehend how much information the human brain can process and store. This article highlighted the amount of information processed by the brain as well as some limitations of previous studies done on the same. 

Frequently Asked Questions: How Many Bits of Information Can The Brain Process?

Does the brain have an information limit?

The amount of information that can be stored in the brain by the trillions of synapses is a large amount, however, it is not infinite. But, interestingly, the amount of information we can learn is usually not limited by the brain’s storage capacity but is influenced by other factors such as:

  • Attention capacity. Attention is a resource that is limited in nature (Kahneman, 1973). We can pay attention to only a number of things at once. Attention is extremely necessary when it comes to the formation of new memories, if we don’t pay attention then our memories fail to get formed. We only have 16-18 waking hours, and thus this limits us from forming newer memories.
  • The second limitation is the kind of information we are learning. When we learn something first, we usually store it better than the material we learn later. For example, if you’ve acquired a phobia of heights, it is difficult to unlearn or overcome that fear. Though it can be suppressed with the help of therapy, it can often return.
  • Our brain is also sensitive to certain kinds of information across developmental spans. For instance, the earlier years of our lives are best when it comes to learning the language. However, when our knowledge of one language is solidified and engrained, learning a second language can be difficult and we may get confused while at it.

How much information can the brain’s conscious mind handle at once?

The conscious mind can process upto 40 to 120 bits of information per second, depending upon the level of arousal, the extent of selective attention, the amount of sleep received, etc.

What was Albert Einstein’s IQ?

It is said that Albert Einstein had an IQ of 160. 160 is the maximum IQ score that can be attained by using The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – Fourth Edition (WAIS-IV) that was put forward by Wechsler (1949). An IQ of 135 or above means the person is in the 99th percentile of the population. Various news articles claim that Einstein’s IQ was 160, however, the methodology they use for this estimate is unclear.

References

Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K. W., & Spence, J. T. The psychology of learning and motivation (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort (Vol. 1063, pp. 218-226). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological review, 63(2), 81.

Wechsler, D., & Kodama, H. (1949). Wechsler intelligence scale for children (Vol. 1). New York: Psychological corporation.

What was missing from this post which could have made it better?