Memory


I try very hard to be open to ideas rather than fix on a good one to the exclusion of others. Most people try to do this to a certain extent, of course. I am not saying that I am particularly good at it even. Nor is an open mind always the most effective tool – sometimes people who are in stubborn, blind opposition to one another’s ideas can get further, faster.

But there are ideas that I find it hard to keep at arm’s length. One is that consciousness is the leading edge of memory. It is what becomes, in a fraction of a second, sensory memory, then working memory, then short-term memory, then long-term memories that become progressively more consolidated.

How do we know we have been unconscious? We know because there is a discontinuity in our memory. I was standing and now I am on the floor. It was evening and now it is morning. I was in the house and now am in the garden. I was watching the news and now I’m watching a movie. What happened? I must have lost consciousness – fainted or slept or something else but I definitely was not conscious.

What is the difference between my conscious experience and my memory of an experience? Not much seems different. There is the same feeling of space and time. There is the same feeling of self. There are the same colors and movement and sound. The only difference seems to be that the real thing is more vivid and compelling than the memory. Also the one seems to carry a label saying ‘now’ and the other a label saying ‘then’.

How do you make sure you are going to remember something? When we want to improve our memory we focus our conscious attention on the thing we want to remember. Also, we keep returning the thing to remember to our consciousness. We say a phone number over and over to ourselves. We look again at someone’s face and remember their name to try and make the connection firm. The route to memory is conscious attention.

If we understood more about memory than perhaps we would understand more about consciousness. 

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