Memory

Memory is also a very complex phenomenon. Although psychology has made substantial progress, it is still poorly understood and some fundamental questions remain unanswered. Three processes related to memory will be addressed: encoding (memorising), storing, and retrieval (recalling, remembering).

 

Encoding

There is no doubt that the brain plays a crucial role in the encoding process. A still quite popular view is that each encoded information or experience creates a specific ‘groove' along neuronal paths, implying that every new piece of information is encoded locally. There is, however, ample evidence against this possibility (see, for example, John, 1972). It is more likely that encoding is an analogue, a distributed but integrated process, akin to a field modifying activity (which fits well with the corresponding interpretation of perception). Such an encoding may be more conducive to an interface with awareness, but intentional awareness does not seem to be always essential. Encoding can be automatic - we remember many things that we have never attempted to remember. Such an encoding (which, perhaps, can be paralleled to the ‘memory' of  the immune system, for example) is likely to rely mostly on the brain. To be encoded, a stimulus needs to reach a memory threshold, which can be achieved by sufficient intensity or repetition.

Deliberate encoding, on the other hand, is qualitatively different. While the automatic one is difficult to influence, deliberate encoding is controlled to some extent by the learner. Attention (which cannot be simply reduced to brain functioning) plays a significant role in this case. Not only can convergent awareness reinforce an encoding pattern, but it can also involve remembering relations or principles (understanding), besides isolated pieces of information, so it has a greater degree of generality. The contributing factors include interest, effort and meaning. Meaningful features lead to an easier organisation - and hence a better memory. Intent seems to be important too. For example, an infant can make many unsuccessful attempts to catch a ball, but remembers the successful one. This is because such an attempt leads to a decrease of the tension created by intent, so it is repeated and retained[1]. Therefore, at least in some cases, encoding involves more that just mechanical brain activity.

 

Storing

Despite extensive research, the issue of where memories are stored is still surrounded with uncertainty. In order to address this question, it is necessary to postulate the two aspects of memory: implicit[2] and contextual, that can be paralleled to the previously discussed content and form. This can be justified even in relation to simple, conditioned memories. Based on his experiments with rats, Karl Lashley established two principles: memories are non-locally distributed (there is no memory storage in the brain)[3] and cortical regions are interchangeable in respect to memory. If different parts of the brain can be used to execute a learned activity, a ‘blueprint' for that activity is unlikely to be in the brain, although the brain can be used to situate and exercise it within a particular context. Thus, it is proposed that implicit memory is stored as energy structures in the non-material aspect associated with mental life, while contextual memories rely on their neuro-correlates. This could explain how the same neurons can be used for different memories (despite their huge number, there are not enough neurons to individually store all the bits of information throughout a life-span), and why they do not get mixed up. It can also account for re-creating memories after brain injures (although, of course, association plays a role too). A weak and unstable memory blueprint that is in the soul can activate open modules in the brain.

The above does not mean that the brain is not very important, especially regarding short term and contextual memory. Through synaptic connections neurons can establish configurations and create a network that reinforces energy patterns. Non-material energy is more fluid, so although a form, such as an image, can be (re)created, stabilising it is difficult. Thus, the soul has only a limited ability to maintain the form without the support of the brain. Brain injuries and amnesia indicate that especially those elements of the mind that relate to interaction with material reality (language ability, face recognition etc.) are heavily dependent on the brain, which is to be expected. Many pieces of information do not have a lasting value - there is no need for the soul to remember the names of streets or politicians, for example. This bifurcation of the two above mentioned aspects of memory happens spontaneously, because the form (a material aspect) of information or experience is too ‘heavy' to be preserved as such in the soul.

 Some empirical support and the further details of storing process (that include the role of the rings, for example) can be found in the chapter ‘The form and the content' (p. 173-174).

 

Retrieval

Retrieval can be understood as the process of reconstructing a mental configurations that have already existed. This process also depends on the subject:

The very essence of memory is subjective, not mechanical reproduction; and essential to that subjective psychology is that every remembered image of a person, place, idea, or object inevitably contains, whether explicitly or implicitly, a basic reference to the person who is remembering. (Rosenfield, 1995, p.42)

If the non-material aspect (that is associated with subjectivity) plays a role in retrieval, it can be expected that the formation of specific wave patterns is crucial, rather than the activity of individual neurons. This is supported by empirical research.:

...when a specific memory is retrieved, a temporal pattern of electrical activity peculiar to that memory is released in numerous regions of the brain. To that released set of wave-shapes corresponds the average firing pattern of ensembles of neurons diffusely distributed throughtout these widespread anatomical domains. Individual neurons within these ensembles display different momentary discharge patterns but the individual average firing patterns converge to the ensemble mean. (John, 1972, p.862)

It is true that, as perception is not always deliberate, some events from memory can appear in awareness spontaneously. When the connection is established in awareness, various elements, an image, sentence, thought or feeling, remain ‘entangled' and one can recall the others (the strength of these connections depends on the underlying principles that govern in a particular situation). A recall may be based on an association that can be between images, words, or feelings, so an initial trigger can be sensory, abstract, and affective. For instance, an energy configuration (that can be felt) or the activation of a particular brain region can recall an image, and conversely an image can recall a feeling or activate a brain region. Any cue can trigger one of these elements, which in turn can bring about the others (it happens more often as a burst rather than a chain). Here is one familiar example: we may not remember a dream we had until we hear or see one detail that is connected to that dream, and then the whole dream suddenly comes back. These cues can enter our awareness accidentally as a part of a different context (like two train-tracks that cross at a certain point, which enables a train to pass from one track to another). The context, therefore, can affect a recall positively (association) and inhibitively (it is difficult to remember a dream when awake because it is out of context). This is why it is easier to remember something if we are in the same environment, mood or mental state as when we learnt it. Body imbalance or energy imbalance in the soul can also trigger memories, as well as habit (repetition).

It is now accepted that the brain does not work linearly and it is suggested that parallel processes take place, forming neural networks. Even this, however, is limiting. It may be more accurate to suppose that the brain works in a systemic way, following the principles of fields (created by impulses travelling through synaptic connections). This could account for the plasticity of the brain and why remembering one element illuminates surrounding elements. It can also explain flash-bulb memory - one strong stimulus increasing the clarity of a memory and of all other elements present at that moment. Eccles postulates that

...the self-conscious mind scans this modular array, being able to receive from and give to only those modules that have some degree of openness. However by this action on open modules, it can influence closed modules by means of impulse discharges along the association fibres from the open modules... and may in this manner cause the opening of closed modules.  (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.367)

The hippocampus (a part of the limbic system) clearly has a significant role in learning and memory - especially regarding transition from short term to long term memory. Patients with a removed hippocampus find it difficult to recall events after the removal (ibid., p.391). This does not mean that they cannot have experiences, but they cannot put them in a spacio-temporal context (time for them does not exist, and also relating the experience to a specific spatial framework is hard). Apparently, amnesiacs can have dreams that refer to events or persons forgotten in the awake state and some of them have galvanic skin reactions when shown photographs of people that they had known but cannot remember. So, the hippocampus seems to be merely an instrument (a relay station) responsible for the laying down of the memory trace or engram, which is presumably largely located in the appropriate areas of the cerebral cortex (ibid., p.392). This means that in the case of a brain injury, the experience is not lost, but a reference, an ability to recall, verbalise or recognise the experience. In other words, connectivity (between the content and form) is missing, which typically causes frustration in people whose brain is not fully-functional[4].

The same is evident in ordinary retrievals, as for example, when we search for a word. We have the pre-verbal sense of meaning (the content), but we are looking for an expression (a form). When found, the word is immediately recognised as the correct one. Eccles writes:

We have a kind of diagrammatic representation of the thing we wish to find before we try to find it... when we really find it, we are usually quite certain that we have reached what we were looking for. (ibid., p.505)

It is proposed that we have the sense of what we are looking for because the content, as a particular vibration without a form, already exists in the soul. Intent leads to a match between the meaning of what we want to say and a corresponding word that requires a neuro-correlate. This notion is further supported by the feeling-of-knowing phenomenon: even when we fail to recall the actual memory, we still may have a ‘feeling' about it (e.g. we can predict accurately whether we will be able to recognise this information). Recognition, therefore, is not based on image matching, but matching the content and the form. This is why, even if we cannot describe or imagine a person that we have met before, if s/he appears, we immediately recognise shim. Experimental work that analysed the wave patterns produced by the brain seems to concur on the importance of meaning:

...the differences in readout wave-shapes seem to depend upon... the specific meaning of the signal. (John, 1972, p.859)

To summarise, remembering involves a three stage process, although not all of them are always present (recognition, for example, does not always require the first stage): a search or generation process (utilising intent), followed by identification[5] (that is a mind process) and finally, situating the memory in context (for which a functioning brain is necessary).

Memories are not only retrieved but also created to some extent, by filling in the existing gaps. New experiences, changing perspective or different moods can modify some elements of a memory or even create new ones. Obviously, the self and intent play an important proactive role in retrieval (possibly to avoid the taboo term self, cognitive psychology coined the phrase central executive). Eccles writes:

In retrieving the self-conscious mind is continuously searching to recover memories of words, phrases, pictures by an action which is not just a mere scanning over the modular array, but it is probing into the modular array in order to evoke responses from it and in order to try to discover the preferred modules, the ones which are related to the memory by their patterned organisation. In that way the self-conscious mind is, as it were, taking a very active role in recovering memories which it regards as being desirable at that time. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p. 504)

It is interesting, in this respect, that the electrical stimulation of brain regions of patients under local anaesthesia can trigger only ‘passive' memories, in which the patient is an observer not a participator (e.g. watching or hearing the action or speech of others). The memories that would require an active or intimately experiential involvement of the self (making decisions, carrying out skilled acts, speaking, writing, tasting food, sexual or painful experiences) are conspicuously absent (Penfield and Perot, 1963).

  • [1]. Later in life though, it is quite common that a failure is subjectively perceived as more important (and therefore more intense), so it is remembered better and is likely to recur.
  • [2]. The term implicit memory is sometimes used in psychological literature differently, to refer to alleged unconscious, non-deliberate memory. For the reasons why it is inadequate see Butler & Berry, 2001.
  • [3]. This does not mean only that different memories are stored in different parts of the brain, but more strongly, that neuronal correlates of every memory are distributed.
  • [4]. See Rosenfield (quoting Kurt Goldstein), 1995, p.26.
  • [5]. For the further clarification of these two stages see Zechmeister & Nyberg, 1982.