Although the central thesis underpinning this series of postings can, hopefully, be seen to be progressing steadily by courtesy of the processes of evolution, i.e. through an account of brain, to mind and onward to a comprehension of spirit and an understanding of the spiritual, we would do well not to be unduly hasty in our desire to move forward. Although we have rightly referred to “the miracle” of the emergence of mind and conscious awareness/unconscious activity, there is a great deal about its singular, (to us) unparalleled and facilitatory nature that we need, where feasible, to identify and acknowledge. The next six blog postings will – however humbly and inadequately – attempt this considerable task, commencing with our basic yet indispensable capacity to take a tenuous hold on knowledge of any kind, namely, memory. Everything that this entire volume of blog postings contains (and indeed, the entire contents of every book that was ever written – or for that matter – word ever spoken), possesses meaning wholly and solely because we remember. So we might say that if conscious awareness is the foundation of mind then memory must surely constitute its ‘ground floor’, as well as being integrated into the total fabric of its structure. Quite simply, we function as human beings and know ourselves for who we are, because we remember.
In the first place then, where within brain are memories stored? The answer is, almost anywhere and everywhere one cares to mention. Oh it is of course true that memories are drawn together in an area of the brain set within the limbic system and known as the hippocampus. It is also the case that the frontal lobe· is implicated in the triggering of recall and the cerebellum and basal ganglia·· in the storage of implicit memories, i.e. the kind of memories which give structure to the laying down of skills and habits, examples of which might be the ‘mechanics’ of holding a conversation, of riding a bicycle or of driving a motor car. But the truth is that ‘bits and pieces’ of even so much as a single memory are diffused through different networks of neurons all over the brain. Just in the same manner in which all the various items of clothing – seen and unseen – i.e. vest, pants, socks, trousers and other garments (depending on gender, season of the year etc.) contribute to a kind of ensemble of appearance in mode of dress drawn from different storage units such as cupboards, draws etc., so the constituent elements which go to make up memories are similarly brought together via retrieval from diverse storage.
And the further truth is that memories – whether of 20 minutes or 20 years ago – are remembered differently by different people and can change – albeit slightly (although sometimes significantly) – according to circumstances, as well as to the different hearers to whom they are being related at the time. Language, emotions being experienced when relating the account, beliefs in vogue at the time, opinions/stereotypes held, also contribute in different ways on different occasions. We also now know from neurologists working in the field of memory and remembering, that those which are frequently revived through re-visitation – develop what are known as “convergence zones”. Such convergence zones account for our skill in drawing together the bits and pieces of memories which, when assembled, amount to a recalled event. When in the morning and after showering, I reach for a clean shirt, select trousers, matching jacket, tie – not forgetting to insert bones into the shirt collar and cufflinks into its sleeve cuffs, I do in reality, conceive of objects, style, fashion and so on as a whole, rather than as a series of different tasks and separate entities. Such is the plasticity of neural networks within the brain, that we are able to store and at the appropriate signal(s) collate all of the otherwise independent bits and pieces into meaningful gestalten.
Of course, there is much more to it than we are able to consider here. We know, for instance, that the hippocampus, whilst not storing memories in the manner once thought, does appear to play a crucial sorting, filtering and collating role in memory. We also know that sleep plays an important part and that adequate REM sleep is crucial to the assemblage and retention of lasting memories. One feature of memory with which we are all familiar has to do with the manner in which it divides into short-term and long-term memory. Short-term memories last from a few moments to possibly a day or so. Beyond that, memories are retained on the basis of need, interest and motivation and are consolidated into long-term and therefore more permanent form. We know too that the hippocampus is heavily implicated in this process of consolidation, (although their remains much still to be learned about its roll and function). There is also, of course, a procedural element to memory, e.g. learning to walk, whether on the flat, upstairs or downhill. We possess a factual memory of which the remembering of objects, places, dates etc. would all be good examples. And what about what is referred to as “episodic memory”, which enables us to recall and describe happenings and events; e.g. how we spent our 21st birthday, our first day at university or in a new job? And none of us would get very far in accounting for any of the above without semantic memory.
Semantic memory is largely detached from what we remember; that is, on the basis of personal experience. On the other hand, it is frequently embedded, in episodic memory especially. Thus, remembering a friend’s birthday entails both, as also would – say – the changing of a wheel on our car sometime in the past. (Having a puncture, i.e. an event, is an example of episodic memory, whereas the ‘know how’ of changing a wheel is more cognitive, theoretical even, than personal and autobiographical). (C) SB.
- The cerebral hemispheres are marked of into regions called lobes.
- · A group of brain masses made up of grey matter, i.e. cells. They are involved in the regulation of movement at a subconscious level.