Out of the box

I have not been reading science reports as much of late and have not been writing. My mind has wandered to less conventional ideas. I hope you find them entertaining and maybe a little useful.

Because we got stuck years ago with a computer model for thinking about the brain, we may have misjudged the importance of memory. It is seen as a storage unit. Memory has been shown to be a very active thing, but still seen as an active storage thing. We know it is involved with learning and imagining as well as recalling, but thinking functions are seen as just how we may use what is remembered. No matter how people think of the brain or the mind, memory stays over to the side as a separate store. Even though there are many types of memory (implicit, explicit and working for a start) they are still just storage. They are seen as the RAM and hard disks of the mind.

Suppose (just for an exercise) that we had started out putting memory in the role of an operating system when we first started using the computer model to get our bearings on thought. Think of it as a form of Windows rather than a hard disk. Actually, this is not as far-fetched as you may think. There is a system called MUMPS which runs on a computer without any other operating system under it and consists of a single large data storage structure and a computer language to use the data. It was invented in the ’60s and is still used in many medical computer systems because it is very fast, and accurate in that it does not impose format restrictions on the data. I am not supposing that the brain is like MUMPS, far from it; but simply pointing out that there is more than one way to view the role of memory.

So – back to the ‘what if’.

The interesting thing about the brain is its plasticity. The changes are not rare or special but are happening all the time. Whatever the brain does leaves it changed a bit. The greatest producers of change are remembering, learning, imagining, recalling – or anything that involves the memory. Every time one neuron causes another neuron to fire, the synapses between those two neurons are strengthened. Remembering makes changes to the connectivity of the brain or in computer terms it changes the architecture of the hardware.

Connecting separate memories (memory integration) is how we make inferences; chains of inferences lead to decisions. If my memory A is connected to B, and B is connected to C, than C and A can be connected. That is the sort of thing that happens when we think. Recognition is also a memory function. If I say it is greenish, you might think of vegetation or Ireland or toys. If it is upside down, it is not Ireland but other things become more likely. But if I then say that it is furry – well then it is likely to be a sloth or some silly soft toy. Saying that it moves slowly would clinch it. The word green is connected to a great many other words and so is upside down but their intersection is small. It gets tiny when it must overlap with the fur connections.

Memory is waiting to help. When I am someplace doing something with some aim, everything I sense and everything I know about the place and the activity, all the memories that may be useful to me are alerted and stand primed, really to be useful. I would not be aware of all these alerted memories until I use them and even then I might be unaware of them. It is actually extremely difficult (probably impossible) to have memory-free thoughts. Even something like vision is not just stimuli processed into image, it is wrapped in memories to connect one moment with the next, predict what will be next, identify objects and give meaning to the image.

The mechanisms that store memories appear to provide our sense of place, the consecutive order of events, the flow of time and the assigning of cause and effect links. It even involves part of our sense of self. We either store memories that way because that is how we understand the world or we understand the world that way because of how we remember it. These sound like two opposed ideas but really are the same idea if memory is in effect our ‘operating system’.

We can see memory as the medium of our thoughts and the mechanisms for using memories as part of our cognition. But it could be seen as even more fundamental than that. We live in a model of the world and ourselves in that world. We project that model around us. We seem to view the projection through a hole in our heads from a vantage point a couple of inches behind the bridge of the nose. It is not just visual but includes sound and other senses. This model houses our consciousness but also our recollections and our imaginings. It is a sort of universal pattern or framework for consciousness, memory and a fair bit of cognition. It seems possible that this framework and the elements in it may be one of the ways that different parts of the brain can share information. (Like Baar’s global workspace and similar theories.)

But what could be the connection between consciousness and explicit memory? Again we can look at something that is more familiar – a tape recorder. The little head with its gap writes on the tape as the tape passes by it. There is another head very close to the writing head that reads the tape. The tape can be monitored using this head and earphones almost simultaneously with the sounds being recorded, but they are the sounds that have just been recorded being read from the tape. This may be what consciousness is – an awareness of what has just been put in memory. There is something to think about.


2 thoughts on “Out of the box

  1. Bryan Gilbert

    Over three decades ago, I when I was in first year college I wrote an essay about creativity. My premise and conjecture was that creativity was simply the establishment of new connections between previously unrelated memories. It was literally the “spark” of illumination as the brain’s neurons fired in new ways. What is thinking at the physical level? Neurons making connections. The connections are memory. So your premise that memory is the operating system makes sense to me. I like your sentence “It is actually extremely difficult (probably impossible) to have memory-free thoughts.” and I think we could say more directly “thinking is memory and memory is thinking”.

    I think that you once said (or someone else did) that the act of remembering is a creative process. There is no actual physical location for a memory. Instead each “memory” is a reconstruction. This is why memories can be modified from the original historical event.

    My current interest is to find ways to refresh our memory by periodic review. Life is so very busy and we no longer live in a culture where we gather to reminisce. I imagine other cultures gathering as large families around events and collectively reviewing past events. These activities refresh the memories of the participants. In our more fractured society these gatherings with others who have shared memories are happening less. So, individually we need to find ways to review and keep fresh memories that are important. Without periodic review we don’t forget; we just lose ready access to the memory. I think there are ways to help make these reviews possible and thereby “build” our personal memory. Please let me know if you have a little time to help me.

    Thank you for research and very accessible way of thinking and writing. I’ve enjoyed your past posts and missed hearing from you. I think you’re writing and your scientific research is exceptional.

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      Thank you for your comment Bryan. I have mixed reactions to recalling memories in order not to lose them. (1) personally I have found old memories that I have not recalled for most of my life appear when I do finally recall them, they have been protected from reworking and are in a sense pure. (2) at family get-togethers and funerals, I have learned surprising things about people I knew well and it is very interesting to then go thought other memories and readjust events to take account of the new information. (3) many cultures have cast their history in stone by regularly recalling it – a dangerous thing leading to continuously fighting old wars. (4) the best way to preserve memories is diaries/journals/letters written to the time of events. Of course, you may gain more understanding of past events and that is good but you have not lost the original view. How I wish I had records of my early years. (5) it is very easy to form false memories and we have to protect ourselves from that.


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