Essay 05 - Memory and the Mind

 5 October 2000 


Memory is a curious thing. If I am to believe much of what I have read, I have observed thousands of distinct bits of information in the time it took me to write this sentence. Probably more. And yet, by the time I am done with this paper, all save one or two will have entirely disappeared from my mind.

I suppose the simplest explanation, that we have some short-term filter and long-term storage area, makes a fair amount of sense. It still leaves many questions, though. How do we decide what we remember? How exactly does this setting into memory take place? Why don't we simply remember all of it?

Professor Tracey touched quite a bit on how the memories are actually set into place. Long-Term Potentiation, a process that naturally occurs during sleep, is believed by many to be the key to understanding memory formation. Professor Tracey explained the intricate mechanics of the process, something that I will probably remember only a small fraction of. That explanation, however, is not so important to me (unless I'm a biology major) so much as the conclusions that knowledge of that process can give us about other questions about memory.

One property of LTP that I think Professor Tracey did not touch on quite enough was associativity. According to our article, this is the fact that LTP happening more or less simultaneously in two areas at the same time can cause both impulses to become stronger.

This explanation agrees with many memory aids that we use. Associating several words with an acronym, for instance, allows a student to remember simply that one word and then recall the connections to others more easily than trying to remember each separately. Another example involves how related words are easier to remember together than unrelated words. By building up relationships between words in science courses we give them new meanings and make them easier to remember. In all of these cases the practice involves relating one memory with another, as per associativity of LTP.

With all of that in mind, trying to find out why we remember what we do becomes a much simpler, more realistic question. Memories that get associated with other strong memories are easier to remember. Looking at the problem of memory here has been at least partially solved by taking it apart, looking at those parts, and allowing the understanding of these processes to tell us about the problem as a whole. And that, I think, is at least part of what Wilson means by Consilience.


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