The Mystery of Memory

When I was a teenager I dreamed of inventing a device that would record our thoughts. Recording the memory portion of the thought was a big part of that invention. In those days technology was primitive. Now, there are a variety of devices that can record our audio and visual memories. Some versions of my imagined device have already become reality.

As far as recording the thoughts…there is such a thing as writing. We can write our thoughts. We don’t need a device for that?

Later in life, I was told that Cosmos is already recording all our thoughts. It made sense to me. If I could think of it as a teenager I am sure the Cosmic Mind thought of it much earlier. It made total sense.

Modern devices are only recording the physical aspects of memory. How can it be any different? Devices are physical therefore they can only record physical information. But, memory is not devoid of emotion and feeling. What is amazing about the cosmic records is that emotions and feelings are recorded too.

Growing up in Turkey in the 60’s and 70’s I went to traditional schools that emphasized memorization. I did not like that. When I moved to the United States and saw teachers giving open book exams I admired the American educational system. American schools taught how to think. Students did not have to memorize anything. If they needed information they could look it up. I thought it was great…until I left the academia and started working in the business world. I suddenly realized that in the business world good memory is the key to success. In business you don’t have time to “look it up.” More details you can remember and more information you can process more successful you will be.

The secret of good memory

I quickly learned that to have good memory and retain knowledge I needed to pay attention with emotion. Didn’t I learn this as a student? Not really! When I was a student I was learning and memorizing without investing emotionally in the subject. I was just getting by. In business you have to pay attention with emotion. I suppose this is true for any intellectually challenging job. Politics is no different. Politicians who know this trick remember names and faces and what they said and where.

It is often said that intelligence without memory is not possible. Good memory is a requirement for intelligence. Again, I repeat, emotional investment in the subject you are dealing with (attachment if you like) is the trick that improves the memory. This is why it is so difficult for spiritual seekers to adjust to the demands of the business and political worlds. Spiritual seekers avoid attachment…attachment is a bad word. I don’t have a solution for this dilemma. I just wanted to mention it.

Regarding the role of emotion in memory, we know that it is much easier to memorize songs because music memories are full of emotions. This is why it is much easier to remember music. This is why long religious scriptures are memorized as musical poems. It is much easier to remember songs than mere words.

Scientific work on memory

There are many scientists working on the mystery of memory but one elegant scientist emerged as a symbol and role model. Eric K. Kandel dedicated his life to research on memory. He is one of those fortunate souls who can focus on one subject all their life. He was richly rewarded for his dedication. He shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard.

After the Nobel Prize, he wrote an excellent review paper [1] where he explained that they have studied the anatomical problem so far in a radically reductionist way but future efforts will have to bridge the gap between the reductionist and the systems approaches.

“Implicit memory is memory for perceptual and motor skills and is expressed through performance, without conscious recall of past episodes. In contrast, the memories we hold near and dear are called explicit (or declarative) memories. These memories require conscious recall and are concerned with memories for people, places, objects, and events. Explicit memory involves a specialized anatomical system in the medial temporal lobe, and a structure deep to it, the hippocampus.” [1]

“In addition, we have here only considered the molecular mechanisms of memory storage. The more difficult part of memory—especially explicit memory—is a systems problem. We still need to seek answers to a family of important questions. How do different regions of the hippocampus and the medial temporal lobe – the subiculum, the entorhinal, parahippocampal and perirhinal cortices—interact in the storage of explicit memory? How is information in any of these regions transferred for ultimate consolidation in the neocortex? We do not, for example, understand why the initial storage of longterm memory requires the hippocampus, whereas the hippocampus is not required once a memory has been stored for weeks or months. What critical information does the hippocampus convey to the neocortex? We also know very little about the nature of recall of explicit (declarative) memory, a recall that requires conscious effort. These systems problems will require more than the bottoms-up approach of molecular biology. They will also require the top-down approaches of cognitive psychology, neurology, and psychiatry. Ultimately we will need syntheses that bridge the two approaches.” [1]

I also enjoyed Eric R. Kandel’s book “In Search of Memory” and his NYT interview [2].

I would like to draw your attention to his mention of the hippocampus. Long-term memories are processed there but once processed memories are not stored there. This is a key finding. This is the key to the mystery of memory in my opinion.

Speed of recollection

What amazes me about the memory is that the recollection is instant. Recollection is so fast! Not always accurate but sometimes crystal clear and vivid. Fast forwarding and rewinding is no problem either. There is a deep mystery here. Physical devices of memory storage are getting faster and faster too but mind’s ability to recollect instantly is truly amazing. Kandel expresses his amazement by saying “we also know very little about the nature of recall of explicit (declarative) memory, a recall that requires conscious effort.”

Location of memory in the brain

Kandel and many other researchers make it clear that we don’t know where the long-term memories are stored. It is very likely that the storage is very distributed and most probably involving the neural network of the brain. I will mention citta in this context. Please see the “Shrii Shrii Anandamurti on memory” section below.

Memory storage in neural networks

This is a very interesting subject. “Google Scholar” points to many papers on this subject:

Stress erodes memory

Many studies have shown that repeated stress erodes memory. Studies point to complex chemical processes involving hippocampus.

Shrii Shrii Anandamurti on memory

Shrii Shrii Anandamurti and almost all spiritual masters in all cultures have said that the base of memory is the mental plate which is known as citta in Sanskrit. The mental plate is also known as the “mind stuff” – a term coined by W.K. Clifford who was a 19’th century mathematician.

Unfortunately, science does not yet know about the mental plate. Science works under the assumption that the basis of memory is brain or more specifically the neural network of the brain. Science does not recognize the ontological status of citta yet.

I wrote about citta before. Please take a look at that article where I mention that the citta’s nature is subtler than the subtlest physical factor. In my opinion it is wrong to describe it as software. Citta has it’s own nature. The analogy of brain as the hardware and citta as the software is not correct.

The next big revolution in science will take place when the properties of the cosmic citta (primordial fabric of the universe) is known and its reflection as unit citta (mental plate) is understood.

Hippocampus was mentioned several times in this article. We are told by scientists that hippocampus is the key to the formation of long-term memories. I have a suspicion that the hippocampus has a central role in the brain-citta interface as well.

“For the performance of various mental functions like memorizing, thinking, perceiving, the application of crude vrttis, and the recollection of distant events, a worldly instrument is necessary and that instrument is the brain, whose various parts help the mind in various ways. It is not proper to say that every human feeling is lastingly recorded or outlined in one or the other parts of the brain. If this were true, the brain would have to be very large and new cells would have to be continually created in order to cope with the progressive demands of feelings and sensibilities every moment. So it has to be admitted that the lasting abode of feelings is the mind, not the brain. Even in the absence of impressions in the nerve-cells, the mind can revibrate its accumulated samskaras in the nerve-cells at will as many times as it likes, by means of its own force, and can also create similar impressions in them. As long as these mentally created impressions remain undistorted, memorization will be easy. “ [“Matter and Spirit” – 1956 – published in “Ananda Marga Ideology and Way of Life in a Nutshell Part 5”]

“Memory is the re-creation of things already perceived. Once the citta has perceived an object, a certain vibration corresponding to that perceived object is imprinted in the nerve fibres. That experience remains in the citta in the form of seed. By recreating a congenial vibration in the nerve cells, and thus by invoking the same feeling in the citta, one experiences the process of memory. Thus the base of memory is not in the brain but in the citta. Vibrations of a perceived object remain imprinted in the nerve fibres for a few days and then gradually fade. Some people believe that memory is stored in the nerve cells in the form of “line”. If that were the case, however, the human brain would not be able to accommodate it. The cranium of those whose thoughts are multifarious would have to become larger and more complex to fulfill the needs of creating proper vibrations.” [Questions and Answers on Ananda Marga Philosophy – 1958]

“Thus the brain is nothing more than a worldly machine for mental recollection. Its various parts assist the mind in various ways. But the permanent abode of memory is the citta. So even though an impression has faded from the nerve cells, the mind can recreate the impression by its own power. When the brain assists in the recollection of any event or fact it is called ‘cerebral memory.’” [“Cerebral and Extra-Cerebral Memory” – 1970 – published in Yoga Psychology]

“The difference between intellect and memory is this: memory is re-creation of something already known and intellect is subjectivisation of an objectivity. Intellect is not a propensity, memory is.” [“Cognitive Force and Psychic Practice” – 1959 – published in “Ananda Marga Ideology and Way of Life in a Nutshell Part 9” ]

“In the absence of rhythm it is difficult to memorize. That is why since ancient times, for fifteen thousand years, the common practice has been to bring every valuable branch of knowledge within the scope of rhythm. Human beings do not easily forget rhythm. One may forget the contents of knowledge, but not the rhythm.” [“Faculty of Knowledge 3 – 1980 – published in Yoga Psychology”]

“What is memory? Whenever you see, or you hear, or you smell something with the help of your efferent or afferent organs, what happens? Your mind gets compartmentalized. One portion of the mind takes the subjective form, and another portion takes the objective form. You are seeing a tiger. One portion of your mind becomes the seer and another portion of your mind takes the form of the tiger; then you think that you are seeing a tiger. Now after some time, when you can create the tiger once a day in your mind, without seeing a tiger, you are creating the tiger in the objective portion of your mind. This re-creation of tiger in your mind is called Smrti or memory.” [“The Fundamental Principles of Life” – 1979 – Taipei ]

“It is wrong to think that memory is an attribute of the brain. Memory remains in the mind (citta) as a potential reaction (saḿskára), and is expressed only when the imaginative power works through the medium of the cerebral nerve-cells. No matter how great the power or potential of the mind may be, it cannot do anything at all without the help of the brain, for the saḿskáras (reactive momenta) which determine the separate existence of microcosms, cannot find expression without the help of the brain.” [“Matter and Spirit” – 1956 – published in “Ananda Marga Ideology and Way of Life in a Nutshell Part 5”]

Hazrat Inayat Khan on memory

The Sufi musician and master Hazrat Inayat Khan said:

“In memory the secret of heaven and hell is to be found. What is heaven or hell? Where is it? It is only in the memory. Therefore memory is not a small thing. It is not something which is hidden in the brain: it is living, and it is a world in itself.” [Hazrat Inayat Khan, “Spiritual Dimensions of Psychology” – Omega Press]

Subconscious and Citta

The Freudian concept of subconscious is sometimes equated to citta. I am not so sure about this. It is said that the subconscious records all impressions whether the individual is functioning in waking-consciousness or not. Does citta record everything even when we are unconscious or when we are not paying attention? I am not sure. Everything is recorded in the cosmic citta but unit citta may be functioning in a different way when it comes to recording. I mentioned the importance of paying attention with emotion. If that’s the case then memory storage in the individual citta is not automatic. The memory storage in the cosmic citta, however, is automatic.

Citta and Manomaya Kosha

In “Definitions and Summary of Soul Monism” I mentioned that the Manomaya layer of the human mind contains the mental structures: ego, intellect, memory as well as emotions and feelings. The dreams during sleep take place in the Manomaya Kosha as well. Manomaya Kosha is the psyche. The waking consciousness, dreaming consciousness and the “subconscious” of the Freudian psychology belong to this layer. The “thinking mind” is in this layer as well. The mental plate (citta) (mind stuff) is included in the Manomaya Kosha as well.

A mathematical aspect of citta

Our minds seem to be converting the time-domain signals arriving through the nerves into spectra (frequency-domain pictures). I strongly suspect that in order to understand the “memory” we need to understand the frequency-domain aspects of the brain and ultimately citta.

References

[1] Eric R. Kandel “The Molecular Biology of Memory Storage: A Dialogue Between Genes and Synapses

[2] NYT interview: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/science/a-quest-to-understand-how-memory-works.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[3] Nobel Prize Foundation has a video
http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1456

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About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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