VII. Memory

Memory and imagination are referred to as "representative mental processes" to denote that they re-present information to consciousness that had been received into consciousness previously but had been stored away for future use.

The subsequent presentations are not the same as the initial presentation, as memory is imperfect: we remember certain details accurately, other details inaccurately, and some are forgotten entirely. The mind, in its attempt to make sense of things, alters the nature of memories to make sense of them, filling in gaps and adding embellishments. When the act of filling in a gap is unintentional and subconscious, we speak of the representation as a distorted memory. When the act is intentional and conscious, the representation is imaginative.

(EN: This leads to a consideration of deception and delusion. In particular, when a person represents something they have imagined, are they aware of its inaccuracy, and are they explicit with others about its inaccuracy? This is the difference between telling the truth to the best of one's knowledge and intentionally lying or embellishing - whether it is represented to oneself or others.)

Virtually every mental process engages the mnemonic capacities of the mind. To draw upon past experience is obviously to retrieve information that has been stored in memory. But even in our perception of present experience, we draw upon memory - per an earlier example, to know that an animal we see is a horse is to compare perception to past experience and draw upon knowledge stored in memory - and memory can distort perception by adding inaccurate information associated to a schema: we perceive all things as a blend of what they actually are and what we imagine or remember them to be.

The importance of memory cannot be overestimated. The thoughts and behaviors of a man are largely explained by his memory - and without memory, every moment of our lives would be like the first moments of a newborn baby. Knowing what things are, what they do, and what we should do to achieve a desired outcome all rely upon memory. So without memory, there is no understanding and no thought, and man would be a mindless animal.

The Functions of Memory

The physiological study of the brain as an organ has thus far failed to identify the mechanical processes by which memory operates. That is, science has not yet identified the physical stuff of memory in the matter of the brain, and we have only theories about how memories are created and stored - we deal with the topic by considering how memory functions without having a clear concept of the manner in which the memory machine works.

There are three basic functions of memory:

  1. To prepare material to be stored
  2. To maintain it in a storage facility
  3. To retrieve material from storage

The second function is one of little interest to psychology, though of great interest to neurology, which has made little progress in identifying the mechanics of the storage facilities of the mind. (EN: Which remains true even to this day.)

Again, there is the argument about how much of perception is stored. Some argue that every perception is stored in memory but many are difficult to retrieve, others argue that only certain significant perceptions are stored and that much is discarded. Each is a plausible explanation but neither can be proven until the mechanics of memory are better understood.

There are various instances in which it is claimed that the mind reproduces facts from memory that we believe to have been forgotten: dreams, hypnotism, near-death experiences, hallucinations, and other odd mental phenomena are alleged to enable us to retrieve information that had been lost in the storage facility. Others take the perspective that the mind is fabricating these details - and while we may feel certain that they are memories, they are delusions constructed by the mind of things that did not actually exist or events that did not actually happen.

(EN: The truth is likely somewhere between the two. Consider the manner in which a senile person recounts memories of their earlier life. The fact that others recall some of the details of their stories suggests that they are accurate representations, but not all of their details are shared by others - and they are embellishments which the other party considers to be plausible, so while they do not share those memories they accept them as accurate.)

The ability to recall information from memory varies significantly between individuals: some remember a great deal more than others, and different people remember different things about a shared experience. Aside of the level of mental skill, the ability to recall a detail depends to a great extent on the clarity and intensity of the original experience, and the importance or significance of the event to the person who remembers it.

During the phases of storage and recollection, there are two important aspects of memory: whether it is recognized as being valid, and its association to other elements of memory (the time and circumstances of the event or object that is being remembered). The next chapter will consider the second in greater detail.

Retrieval of Memory

Whether an experience is stored in memory, or whether that memory can be easily retrieved, depends substantial on the clarity, depth, and relevance of the original impression - but even before that, it depends on the level of attention given to the original experience.

However, there is a chain of dependencies. Memory depends on attention, but attention in turn depends on interest. The things we remember best are therefore the things in which we had the greatest interest. As such it is the differing interests of individuals that cause them to have more and more detailed memories.

However, this becomes a circular argument: whether we remember things because we were interested in them, or take interest in the things we remember most clearly. This is evident in those who took an interest in a field of study because they had a memorable experience.

Perception in Memory

While our natural proclivity is to remember the things in which we take interest, we can also compel our memory to record something by fixing our attention upon it.

The visual sense is often used to evoke memory: to stare upon something and pay close attention to its qualities - shape, color, size, and so on - and then to close your eyes and attempt to recreate the image of the item in memory. Done repeatedly for a long enough time, a particularly clear impression of the item is recorded in memory.

However, it is not the actual visual image of a thing that exists in memory, but the perception of a thing. It is not merely enough to recall the visual aspect of something, but to know what it is and how it behaves. When we remember a person, we remember their name, their relationship to us, the things they habitually do, and the like. The more you know about something, the easier it is to remember it.