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Memory as Soft or Hard History

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I. Memory as Soft or Hard History

Does a memory of something, like a car crash, represent soft history?

This is an interesting question, because most people tend to think of their memory as reliable - just as sensory perception. We have seen before that this is not true for the latter; and indeed, it is not true for memory either!

Your own conscious memory of the car crash is soft history, because it is communicated (or second hand) history, even if you were involved in it once. It is what you remember of what happened and it might be wrong. Essentially it is what you believe happened! A memory does not deal with facts, but with interpretation of facts, which is something else entirely. And it "deals" with something, it "is" not that something. So it most certainly represents soft history.

(As for definitions of soft and hard history, see History – Understand the Present by Understanding the Past.)

II. A Model of Memory

Our ability to remember things is a function of our central nervous system, of our brain. We can also forget things, things we have first remembered, but we do not forget everything. So what is the difference?

I suggest a model, where we consider memory as an imposed structure. A certain impression is registered by our perception (or sometimes by mere thoughts) and alters something in the structure of certain nervous cells. While this altered structure remains, we remember that impression. If it changes again or changes back, we forget it. This preserved, imposed structure is our memory. It generates in our mind something similar to when we first experienced this impression.

But why do these structures, our memories, disappear? The new structure is imposed and formed by the sensory impression (or the thought); as time passes, it tends to change back to its original state, its resting state, which is a state of balance. It dissolves: we forget.

Why do we forget some things while others are remembered? I have an idea of that also, but let us put off this explanation for a while, and look at some other forms of memory.

Computers also remember, and so do all forms of recordings. Essentially, there is no principal difference between storage on a CD, a magnetic tape, or a punched card. They all "remember" by imposed structure. If the structure is lost, they lose the data: they "forget".

There is one difference, however, between, for example, a magnetic tape and human memory on one side, and a punched card on the other. Information storage can be based on something "floating", chemistry, magnetism, etc. The change of structure does not change the outer material vehicle, and it can be reversed. That is what we have in psychological memory and magnetic tapes. A punched card, however, is based on outer physical change of the medium. The structure cannot be changed without deforming the physical vehicle, and once imposed it cannot be reversed - just destroyed. We call the former "liquid memory" and the latter "solid memory". A liquid memory can be depleted and filled again, with the vehicle intact. A solid memory cannot be depleted with less than a part of the vehicle being destroyed.

Now we can extend the concept of memory. If you throw a stone into water, you get a series of concentric rings on the surface, moving outwards from the place where the stone hit the water. These rings are a memory of the hitting stone. They very quickly fade, and the water returns to its original state. This is really liquid memory, and the process of forgetting is very rapid.

If you cut a mark in a stone, however, it will not disappear until that part of the stone is destroyed - either by violence or by natural erosion. The latter would take a very long time. Here, too, we have a case of memory, but it is solid to the extreme. Even geologic remnants are memories, they are imposed structures, and they are open for interpretation.

Long ago I came across the fact that tapes with sound recordings tended to lose their information - the recording faded - with time. That is not surprising. What surprised me was that tapes which were only stored, never played, lost the recorded sound faster than those which were played often. To make it simple, the metallic particles that were structured in the tape by the recording process were returning to their original state, and they did this faster if the tapes were never played. We have a case of memory loss due to lack of use. Actually, the more the tapes were played, the better the recording was preserved.

Can we say then that liquid memory is better preserved if it is used; that is, if the contents of that memory is more often retrieved? Yes, perhaps. It is not as simple as just retrieving, however, the rings in the water would need a new stone thrown, hitting the surface in exactly the same way and under the same conditions, again and again. That would correspond to repetition in a process of memorising. But assume that a mere retrieving of data is equivalent to a new structuring force, that when we recall something, we recreate the imposed structure of that memory. Every time we recall it, we "throw a new, but equivalent stone". The difference between the water and our human memory is that the water is more liquid, it returns to its original state so much faster. So, we are as the sound recording: in order to last, our memories must be regularly recalled, lest the imposed structure dissolves.

How about solid memory? It is not really all that different. If you cut a mark in stone, it will disappear by erosion – it will just take a very long time. But if you improve the mark every century or so and keep it clear, it will last longer. By repeated "memorising" it will remain.

We must, however, strictly distinguish between the structure, the memory itself, and its meaning. And here we face a problem, a disturbing factor.

We can say that written text is memory; it is a structure imposed on a paper. There it is, but what it means is a matter of interpretation by an individual’s consciousness. The same goes for our personal memories. The structure imposed on cells in our nervous system is there, but what our consciousness experiences when it retrieves the memory is subjective, a matter of interpretation. By retrieval we strengthen the structure, we said, but we really do not do that. We put a new memory over the old, namely - not the memory of the original impression - but the memory of the last retrieved memory. And now it becomes interesting and complicated.

Each time we retrieve a memory (or strictly, the contents of a memory), we fill it with assumptions and guesswork, and we can add associations that had not occurred to us before. It changes. What we have there after the first retrieval is slightly different from what was there before. And so it goes on, it changes a little every time. In the end, the difference from the original impression can be considerable.

In each step we impose a new structure in the same place as the old one, but the new one is not completely identical with the one preceding it. When that is repeated several times, the memory (or its contents) becomes more and more a function of imagination than of real sensory impressions.

The memories, the imposed structures, no matter their nature, are hard history. They are as they are, and they are beyond truth and falsity.

The meaning of memory, however, is soft history, communicated in many steps within oneself. A memory of a memory of a memory of a memory of a real event expresses history by hearsay and is subject to all its weaknesses.

If this model is true, we can learn a practical lesson from it: memories should be recalled on a regular basis to be long-lasting. Recollection of memories from the past makes us remember better. There is good reason to believe that for each time a memory is recalled, its structure is a little bit deeper stamped into the cells housing it, even though it might change a little each time.

This does in no way contradict what most people know instinctively: the power of repetition.

III. The Conscious and he Unconscious Memory

The memory we have discussed so far has to do with consciousness. Retrieving a memory is to move it into the consciousness from somewhere else; and in most cases, perhaps all, it consists in something we have consciously perceived. So, the awareness of a perception entered the consciousness, left it for storage, and returns upon recalling.

Let us assume that we carry inside ourselves a memory of everything we have ever perceived, and it remains as long as we are alive. This memory is not a part of the consciousness, and it deals with perceptions that were there only exceptionally. It consists of a recording of a myriad perceptions that never passed through the consciousness at all, we have never been aware of them. By extreme training, however, one can develop the ability to access this megastore of unconscious memory, drawing small pieces of it out into the conscious awareness. But this is rare, and it will still be very little. The reason: the consciousness is so small. To realise its smallness, we will have to compare the bandwidth of brain and consciousness. We will look at that in the next and last article of this series.

Read the whole series:

1. Brain & Horror Vacui (Fear of the void)

2. History – Understand the Present by Understanding the Past

3. Memory as Soft or Hard History

4. Bandwidth Of Brain and Consciousness

Other related articles:

COLOUR & NEGATIVE REALITY: Do we sometimes see what is not?

What is Special with Number 7?

Words, Consciousness & Beyond

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All my articles on Brain & Mind can be found here, on Philosophy here, and on Psychology here.

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