The Brain and Memory

The human brain is the most complex structure in the known universe. If you are reading this, the odds are you have one of these amazing devices atop your shoulders, along with all your memories,* and your consciousness and your personality. There are some distinct oddities about this organ.

As was learned a couple of centuries ago, the mind has both conscious and unconscious** features. The memory lies in the Unconscious. We can’t have all those memories cluttering up our conscious minds, so they are stashed at various locations within the brain***, and then recalled, hopefully, as needed.

(A recent hypothesis expands on the conscious/Unconcious concept to account for phenomena such as hypnic jerks, deja vu, “Life Reviews,” Terminal Lucidity, sleepwalking, Transient Global Amnesia, et al. See the preprint at ResearchGate.)

Memory loss is problematic and associated with senility, dementia, trauma, hypnosis and something else that I can’t remember just now. As we age, it seems as if it takes longer and longer to recall a particular memory. We use one of several techniques to shake that memory loose from wherever it lurks, deep within our cranium. We go through the alphabet from A to Z, and, often, when we hit the correct initial, the thing we seek pops into our consciousness as if by magic. Or we try to remember where we learned that thing, or whom we heard it from, or when. Or to call up some related image. Memories, it seems, have such metadata associated with them, such as time stamps, and these tags are useful in recall.

Even a momentary lapse in memory is disturbing. We can’t remember the folksinger who appeared on Gunsmoke, and we spend an hour going over and over the metadata, putting off the ultimate admission of failure–i.e., going to an Internet search engine and getting an immediate answer. This seems, to me at least, like cheating. I had a creative writing instructor who recommended never using a thesaurus to come up with the correct word. She believed that our memory will be stronger if we test it, instead of diving into Roget’s. She may have been right.

Why do we indulge in these lengthy work-arounds? Obviously, we’re afraid that we suffer from one of those forms of memory loss catalogued above. To use a memory crutch, such as the Internet, is to admit we’re only a few folksingers away from drooling our afternoons away in a home somewhere, and the harbinger is that increasing lag between wanting to recall something and finally remembering it.

But cheer up. It’s to be expected that we can’t remember as quickly as we used to. I like to compare our memories to that warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark. At the conclusion of the movie, we see a warehouse worker trundling a crate containing the Ark of the Covenant down an aisle on a hand cart. The camera tilts upward and zooms back, revealing the immensity of a warehouse full of similar crates.

As we experience something, our brain stashes it in our warehouse. When we want to remember it, the process works in reverse. We should not be surprised or worried that it takes longer and longer for the brain’s warehouseman to reach any particular memory and wheel it back to where we can grasp it. Our warehouse is filling up, and the farthest crate is a lot farther, now. The warehouse has a jillion more crates than it used to, and there’s only that one guy and his hand cart.

I’ve found that if I just wait, the memory eventually appears in my conscious mind. Sometimes it takes an hour or two. Usually a lot less. Sometimes I can jog it a bit with the alphabet or other recall technique.**** I always thank my internal warehouseman. It can’t hurt.

That folk singer was Theo Bikel. My friend Judy Sanger once was his emergency accompanist for a performance.

* Unless you believe, as did Dr. Ernest Cannif in Does That Voice in Your Brain Bother You? that the brain is not a computer, but a modem, and our actual memories are stored somewhere else.

** The notion of the Unconscious originated with Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, (1775 to 1854), a much-neglected philosopher.

*** Males, as you probably know, possess a second, auxiliary brain known as the scrotabellum, where much of their finest thinking is done. More on that some other time.

**** I once was trying to come up with a word that meant to give out or emit. Neither of those terms was quite right for the context. I did remember that there was a German word that contained the correct term, and I could recall that word: fortpflanzungsgeschwindigkeit. Which means velocity of propagation. The word i sought was propagate.

Photo by Trougnouf. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Video via Raiders of the Lost ark alternative benton/Fenton ending
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3 Responses to The Brain and Memory

  1. Dana Macy says:

    Speaking of lapses of memory, I must say that the endless variety of β€˜Apps’ that can access anything our heart, or ( mind) desires, can in fact come to our rescue. For example, I often cannot remember where I’ve parked my car. Instead of suffering an anxiety attack, I simply consult the app on my phone that shows me exactly where the car is located (including a photo of the surrounds). Why do I not take mental note of landmarks? I do, and mysteriously the memory of those landmarks eludes me. So much for my aversion to smart phones (as long as I can remember how to use this contraption).

    • jguenther5 says:

      Methodology can serve as an effective substitute for memory. Although the movie Memento was a disturbing film, it did show some work-arounds (such as a polaroid shots with immediate notes on the photos, and clever, albeit painful, use of tattoos*). But one primary tool mentioned was committing some facts to rote memory, which is stored differently from regular memory.
      My Guardienne Hypothesis [ ] will ultimately include a sub-hypothesis that different regions are used for conscious mind memories and Guardienne memories. Techniques may be developed to let some of the latter serve as prosthetic memory.

      * as in the old story of the Admiral’s tattoo, discovered post mortem, “Port=left, Starboard=right.”

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