The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Reconstructive Memory

A startling feature of our memory is that it does not remember things the way we perceived them. Something happens between the time we see or hear a scene and the time that the scene gets stored in memory.

I can tell you the plot of a novel even if i cannot tell you a single sentence that was in the novel. If I tell you the plot twice, i will use different words. It would be almost impossible to use the same words. Nobody can remember all the sentences of a book, but everybody can remember what the "story" is.

Compare with a computer. A computer can memorize the book page by page, word by word. Our memory does not memorize that way. It is not capable of memorizing a book page by page, word by word. On the other hand, it is capable of so many other things that a computer is not capable of. For example, we can recognize a plot, told by somebody else, as the plot of the same novel. That person's version of the plot and our version of the plot probably do not share a single sentence. Nonetheless, we can recognize that they are the same story. No computer can do that (yet), no matter how big its memory is. Size is obviously not the solution.

In the 1930s the British psychologist Frederic Bartlett developed one of the earliest models of memory. Bartlett studied how memory "reconstructs" the essence of a scene. We can easily relate the plot of a movie, and even discuss the main characters, analyze the cinematography, and so forth, but we cannot cite verbatim a single line of the movie. We stored enough information about the movie that we can tell what it was about and perform all sorts of reasoning about it, but we cannot simply quote what a character said at one point or another.

What Bartlett discovered is that events are not stored faithfully in memory: they are somehow summarized into a different form, a "schema". Individuals do not passively record stories verbatim, but rather actively code them in terms of schemas, and then can recount the stories by retranslating the schemas into words. 

Each new memory is categorized in a schema which depends on the already existing schemas.  In practice, only what is strictly necessary is added. When a memory must be retrieved, the corresponding schema provides the instructions to reconstruct it. That is the reason why recognizing an object is much easier in its typical context than in an unusual context. 

The advantage of the “reconstructive” memory is that it can fit a lot of information in a relatively narrow space. Any memory that tried to store all the scenes, text and sound of a movie would require an immense amount of space. But our memory stores only what is indispensable for reconstructing the plot and other essential features of the movie, thereby losing lots of details but at the same time saving a lot of space.


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