An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Goddess Mnemosyne

What an odd thing is life. I had thought yesterday that I could write today on my take on the original scene for you but I find that I cannot. There is something else that I have to explain before I can expect any of you to comprehend those, my original thoughts. It is daunting but I must try.

I have to sketch out for you my ideas about how memory and recall are arranged in the human organism. I have long been fascinated about this mysterious human faculty - possibly the one human faculty, over and above the faculty for self reflection, that makes us truly human. Shem mentioned both Proust and Russian studies in the 60s into the phenomenon of total recall in his response and in that he was particularly perspicacious. But then he is my twin after all. And he is well aware of my interest in the topic.

Let me begin by splitting what is known as human memory into its constituent parts: the first crucial component of this faculty is what I shall refer to as memory and that is the process we would, in computer terminology, refer to as the write function - the process that writes and records human experience into the wetware of the brain as it happens; the second crucial and obvious component is the recall of those stored memories, what we would, again in computer terminology refer to as the retrieval function. From this point forward in this text I shall capitalise both of these words when they are used in this special sense.

A brief working knowledge of the arrangement and disposition of key human organs suggests that the organisms that have evolved into the human being tend towards building in redundancy (I carefully avoided any sloppy mention of design) and this is reflected in my view of memory and recall.

MEMORY is, in my opinion, perfect. Everything that a human being experiences and perceives is stored in the brain wetware: permanently and ineradicably. It is also stored redundantly, that is it is stored in multiple non-contiguous locations in wetware.

RECALL, on the other hand, is entirely and necessarily, imperfect. The few cases of perfect recall recorded in medical literature are tales of such an overwhelmingly terrifying aberration that it seems clear that it is counter evolutionary: imagine, if you can a trigger - be it a madeline or not - that gives rise to a memory (in it's widest sense) that takes as long or longer to experience as the original experience did, is as detailed in all respects and exercises all of the original senses. Now imagine this happening several hundred times every day. Perfect, total, RECALL would offer no evolutionary advantage - rather the reverse.

Now the fact that perfect, total, RECALL is both possible and documented would suggest, or at least tend to support my opinion that MEMORY itself is perfect and complete - at least in some humans.

Between MEMORY and RECALL is a little understood realm that I suggest we refer to as "MNEMONIZING". This is the process wherein access routes to memories are constructed and stored in wetware. I believe that there are two distinct types of MNEMONIZING: conscious and unconscious. Unconscious MNEMONIZING takes place, as its name suggests, unconsciously. Much of this unconscious MNEMONIZING takes place during sleep time although I suspect that there is the equivalent of a computer background process that runs in human wetware during wakeful time and that deals primarily with constructing and laying down short term memory access maps or routes whereas long term memory maps and access routes are handled during conscious downtime, or sleep.

Any reader old enough to know of rote learning will be familiar with conscious MNEMONIZING, as will any reader who has experimented with "memory enhancement" techniques. Rote learning and "memory enhancement" techniques both exploit the ability of the human brain to multi-task: they both involve laying down the MEMORY in wetware while at the same time imposing and associating an access route (MNEMONIZING) with that particular memory.

Now the observant among you will have noticed that in the first of the preceding two paragraphs I spoke of memory maps and access routes (plural) whereas in the paragraph about conscious MNEMONIZING I used the singular. Unconscious MNEMONIZING in general, and downtime or sleep MNEMONIZING in particular, appear to lay down multiple paths and routes having established associations with a plurality of pre-existing memories and access paths. Thus, the unconscious MNEMONIZING provides a redundant set of RECALL possibilities whereas conscious MNEMONIZING appears to hardwire a preference for a single RECALL path - think how often you will recite a whole mnemonic or a significant part of it in order to get to the particular MEMORY that you are trying to access. How many days in April? See if you don't sub-vocalize "30 days hath September" before you get to April.

It is my contention that conscious MNEMONIZING limits, whereas unconscious MNEMONIZING expands, the possibilities both of the imagination and future RECALL.

Finally I further have a sneaking belief that there is a function of critical mass at play in the overall behaviour of memory, in its broad day to day usage, inasmuch as there seems to be a point beyond which RECALL becomes easier and that this reflects a sufficiently rich and redundant set of access paths having been laid down in wetware. The more you put in to memory the easier it becomes to remember things.

Now that will do for today and I hope you can RECALL all of this when you come back tomorrow for the next installment.


PS Radio 4 are currently running an interesting feature on memory link

1 comment:

  1. Excellent stuff, and now I have run out of superlatives. Is that significant?