The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


Memories are Made of This

The mindís cognitive faculties depend to a great extent on memory. If we could not learn and remember at all, our cognitive life would be virtually non-existent.

If we could not remember where we live, where our office is, how to lace our shoes, how to drive a car, how to speak, and so forth, we would be mere objects devoid of real life. In fact, we would probably last only a few minutes. The more complex the organism, the moreessential memory is to its survival because so much is required to keep the organism alive.

Even the worst cases of amnesia do not completely erase memory. A patient who suffers complete amnesia does not remember anything from some date on in the past, but still remembers a lot of vital facts about living in the world.

Evolutionarily speaking, memory provided a considerable advantage to creatures capable of remembering where water was or where predators lived. The more refined one's memory, the easier to navigate the environment, to survive in it and to find food in it.

That animal memory is not just like a computer memory is a fact due precisely to the tasks that were required by it, tasks that rarely require perfection but do require speed and capacity. Learning to bike and memorizing the emergency phone number are both important tasks, but they are usually achieved in rather different ways. Thus it is not even correct to speak of "memory" as if it were just one task. It is probably more appropriate to speak of "memories".

Memory is more than storage. Memory is also recognition. We are capable of recognizing a tree as a tree even if we have never seen that specific tree before. No two trees are alike. And even a specific tree never appears the same to us, as the perspective, the wind, the lighting can all dramatically change its appearance. In order to recognize a tree as a tree, and as a specific tree, we use our "memory". Whenever we see something, we ransack our memory looking for "similar" information. Without memory we would not see trees, but only patches of brown and green.

The process of thinking depends on the process of categorizing: the mind deals with concepts, and concepts exist because memory is capable of organizing experience into concepts. Our mind, ultimately, looks like a processor of concepts. The mind's functioning is driven by memory, which is capable of organizing knowledge into concepts. So much so that, inevitably, a theory of memory becomes a theory of concepts, and a theory of concepts becomes a theory of thought.

Cognition revolves around memory. All cognitive faculties use memory and would not be possible without memory. They are, in fact, but side effects of the process of remembering. There is a fundamental unity of cognition, organized around the ability to categorize, to create concepts out of experience.

Memory's task is easily summarized: to remember past experience. But, unlike the memory of a computer, which can remember exactly its past experience, human memory never remembers exactly.

The most peculiar feature of our memory is, perhaps, the fact that it is so bad at remembering. Our memory does not only forget most of the things that happen, but, even when it remembers, it does a lousy job of remembering.

Memory of something is almost always approximate. Many details are forgotten right away. If we want to remember a poem by heart, we have to repeat it to ourselves countless times. And sometimes memory is also very slow: sometimes it takes a long time to retrieve a detail of a scene, sometimes it will take days before the name of a person comes back to mind.Rather than accessing memories by calendar day or person's name, we seem to access them by associations, which is a much more complicated way to navigate in the past.

It is hard to think of something without thinking also of something else. It is hard to focus on a concept and not think of related concepts. And the related concepts that come to mind when we focus on a concept are usually things we care about, not abstract ideas. If we focus on "tree", we may also remember a particular hike in the mountains or an event that occurred by a tree. We build categories, we relate categories among them, we associate specific episodes with categories.

For an entity that is supposed to be just a storage device, anomalies abound. For example, we cannot count very easily.Do you know how your home looks like? Of course. How many windows does it have? You have looked at your home thousands of times, but you cannot say for sure how many windows it has.If you see a flock of birds in the sky, you can tell the shape, the direction, the approximate speed... but not how many birds are in the flock, even if there are only six or seven. Another weird feature of our memory is that it is not very good at remembering the temporal order of events: we have trouble remembering if something occurred before or after something else. On the other hand, our memory is good at ordering objects in space and at counting events in time.

Human memory is a bizarre device that differs in a fundamental way from the memory of machines: a camera or a computer can replicate a scene in every minute detail, whereas our memory was just not designed to do that.

What was our memory designed to do?


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