Re: New Scientist on memory

From: Wade T. Smith (
Date: Fri 30 May 2003 - 19:08:48 GMT

  • Next message: "Re: New Scientist on memory"

    On Friday, May 30, 2003, at 02:21 PM, Ted wrote:

    > the evidence discussed in this article abolishes the notion that the
    > brain alone is responsible for memory.

    Not _quite_ so, although it is certainly part of your agenda to make that so- here's a more cogent précis from the article itself about this-

    "So maybe what needs changing here is how we think about memory. A memory trace that goes all floppy every time it gets used only seems a disaster if you believe the brain to be something like a computer where data needs to be preserved in fixed form. Fluidity, on the other hand, may be precisely what is required for memory to work as something much more organic - a living network of understanding rather than a dormant warehouse of facts."

    This wonderful article then goes on (thanks, Ted), with this- as elegant an explanation of what _some_ people seem to think is the memetic process in our heads, but which is now shown in many elegant experiments to be merely the innate and physical workings of the brain itself, thus, finally, with a silver bullet, putting the last and final nail in the coffin of a meme in a brain. (They'll go on, of course, with the equivocation that all that is needed is a 'subclass' of memory to provide the meme in the brain- well, once we have a subclass, now we know we will need yet another layer of reconciliation at the synapse level- a truly pointless and totally unreasonable thing to ask a brain to do. "Neuroscientists felt this hierarchical filing system was a little long-winded." Yeah, d'uh....) Anyway, here's the passage in the article that, in all ways and means, describes the processes in the brain that are all that are required for cultural or memetic behaviors. If you like to see the hammer mark around the nail, here's this- "So if
    "you" are essentially a pattern of synaptic connections, a tangled web of memories, then there is a big problem of how this pattern endures"- which makes a meme in a brain, especially one that is somehow
    'transfered' or 'selfsame' a very, very, unnatural thing.

    But then, Joe said it best-

    "This fits in nicely with the idea of a dynamic cognitive gestalt."

    - and I couldn't say _that_ better, but then he goes on "and is most probably even necessitated by it" and that is just sheer non sequitur, or rather, specious preamble, as the memory process examined by these investigations dealt with animals in no need of cognitive gestalts such as those embodied with the sense of self. Memories are part of the way the basic brain works, not part of any evolved capacity of mind. Once memory is seen as simply the way the brain works, all that is needed for cultural evolution is two of them and a way to shake hands. Culture, and all memetic processes, are functions and effects of social environments, not merely brains.

    "Memories exist to make sense of the present - to recognise and understand the world - and the brain needs to be able to optimise all its circuits, strengthening or generalising some connections while weakening or erasing others. Reconsolidation may seem a radical and unnecessary step for a brain that just wants to be a dormant warehouse. But, Sara says, if a memory becomes completely plastic every time it is roused, then it can be refiled in a carefully updated way. Active choices can be made about whether to merge the old and the new - or by contrast, to reinforce their separateness."

    Read that last sentence at least twice, if you're thinking of pulling out any nails and burying the poor memeinthebrain again after the futile post-mortem.

    And then we see this-

    "In most avenues of life, it doesn't really matter if you make a few mistakes in your memory," says Loftus."

    - which leads me to further feel confident my thoughts about culture are on track. Culture is here, among other reasons, to correct the mistakes in our memories, and to provide 'refiling' services, which, as this article shows us inescapably, is an active and dynamic process,
    (gee, performance...) since we, as fallible and weak recallers, are not as useful to culture in this respect as it would need. When this service itself fails, we see tears in the eyes of Tlingit elders.

    And then, to complete the circle, the article includes this gorgeous quote-

    "She often quotes the Uruguayan novelist, Eduardo Galeano, who said:
    "Memory is born every day, springing from the past, and set against it."

    - Wade

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