Sunday, September 25, 2005

On human memory

I've been thinking again about human memory -- that hacked and refactored offspring of scent storage.

I've only a lay knowledge of the neurosciences, but from what I read I suspect the picture that's emerging is both fascinating and disturbing. I think the emerging consensus is:

1. We don't really remember very much at all. We have 'hints' and 'fragments' and 'aspects' in our memory, but most of what we think we "remember" is in fact recreation and synthesis from often very sparse hints. This is why it's trivially easy to create false memories, and why witness testimony is so unreliable.

2. All of our cognitive structures are crude and defective, but memory structures are particularly archaic and limited and evolve very slowly -- if at all.

3. The 'creative and synthetic capacities', imagination, the ability to invent based upon pieces of information, began as a hack to extend the limited capacities of our memory subsystems. By implication creative and synthetic people may have memories that are in one sense "better", in another "untrue".

4. If memory evolution is the rate limiting step in our cognitive capabilities, then we can think of language and socialization as a way to create a distributed memory service (each person could specialize in one social narrative, and key myths and technologies could be transmitted from one specialized parental store to a child).

5. The ability to read and write was a transcendental leap around the limitations of memory. When we fully understand how reading occurs we will be stunned by what a fantastic "hack" reading is. It will be seen as a collection of frail mutations and perverted subsystems.

6. Some people have exceptional memories ("photographic"). Is this a new mutation or does it have a downside? I tend to suspect the latter or I think it would be far more common. It is very worthy of study.

All of which places things like 'brain memory chips' [1] and continuous capture of one's lifetime audiovideo stream in a different historical context -- just another step around an archaic subsystem that can't keep up with the evolving brain. In our home we've taken one step along that path by constantly cycling family images on the computer displays -- creating not-utterly-authentic memories of a life of uninterrupted joy.

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