Memory and cognition
by, 12-03-2007 at 12:41 PM (1160 Views)
This morning, while driving, I heard a segment on NPR about memory, cognition, consciousness, and so on. Those are topics that interest me greatly. I was reminded on my blog about The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I have to reread. The person who had written the book that was being discussed seemed to be overly concerned with the style of expressing; although he saw the "footprint" of the structure of memory in various sorts of expression. I am still waiting for someone to decode the act of cognition, by which I mean the brain function by which ideas, observations, memories, etc. are manipulated to form new ideas. When that matter is decoded, it will be possible to truly program people. One thing that he touched upon was the difference and similarity between emotions and thoughts. I don't think that he got that right, but I only have notes about that difference and similarity. I had been looking for central theme for a short story that I have begun, and that may be the thing: The main character is, or will be, completely conscious of his emotions. That will lead him to be able to see the emotional states of others.
This is actually an extension of the review that I just wrote for The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco but that naturally leads to exactly what the nature of human consciousness is. I have an opinion about that. I don't know whether I am right about it, and I don't know how to test the idea. It should be clear that I agree with Eco that consciousness is the total of a person's experiences. What makes that different from simply the memory of those events is that some memories are tagged with emotional importance, and that was the main point of Eco's book. That brings up what memories are and what emotion is.
Memory is very interesting and the analogy with computers is a useful analogy, but there isn't a one-to-one correspondence. In computer memory, each bit is actually put into memory and, if the file is saved, it is put into storage. Human memory is trickier than that. Do you remember when you were quite young and most things were new to you? Each new thing was filed away so that you could use the memory of it later, but each bit was not saved separately. The brain is trickier than that. It is set up like a database in which things are tagged with the differences from other things. I don't know what the first memory is, a breast maybe or a bright light, but after that first memory things are arranged by their differences and similarities. For example, consider bottles, beer bottles are similar to ketchup bottles, but the difference is also clear. You can look at a row of bottles and easily pick out the ones that are different. There was a time, when you might have grabbed a beer bottle thinking that it was ketchup, or vice versa, but an adult would only do that after having become inebriated. By saving the differences and tagging particular items, the brain uses much less material to record each memory than does a computer. That also explains why sensory impressions sometimes trigger memories of something else; the same tag that was used on an earlier memory was reused for a new memory. Let me give an example, several years ago I was wondering what kind of tree one was. I took a leaf in my hand and I remembered the same thing years earlier, when someone else had asked me what a kind of tree one was, and I took a leaf in my hand and looked at it carefully. I replied that I didn't know, but that I would tell her if I found out. The two leaves were identical, both were from white ash trees. I did tell her, but she didn't remember asking.
Yes, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is very good, but I don't think that Eco went as far as he might have. Yambo awoke in a hospital bed without any memory of his life. He remembered all sorts of things about the world at large, but he didn't remember his name or any of his past. When he was asked his name, he replied, "I am Arthur Gordon Pym."
In an attempt to regain his past, Yambo went to his family's country house where he spent Summers and most of World War 2. He found books of various sorts that he read as a child. He reread them to learn what he learned in the past. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is a comic book version of Haggard's She. I was surprised that Yambo, as a dealer in antiquarian books didn't recognize it. Perhaps Eco isn't familiar with She, which would be surprising One memory that he can't catch is the appearance of a high school crush, Lila. After learning that Lila's real name was Sibilla, the name of his beautiful assistant, then finding a copy of the 1623 first folio of Shakespeare's plays at the bottom of a box of books, Yambo may have had another "incident" like the one in which he lost his memory. In his strange state, which we readers do not learn the nature of, he reassembles his memories, new and old, into something of a burlesque. What does he remember, what is a real memory, are there any real memories? Is he in a come or awake. Did he have another incident, or has he regained normal memory?
He gave me some good ideas, but the novel didn't feel complete.