Metaphor or simple bloviation

Here are two more of the images I captured while on Cape Cod last weekend. I uploaded these to my WordPress media library, inserted them into what was then an empty screen, and discovered that I was at a loss about what to say about them. And so it was that, somewhere in the middle of my run yesterday afternoon, it struck me that both could be viewed as metaphors for the way in which we think our minds distill events to that essence we call memory. In some of the more far-flung wanderings you have read here, I have discussed the physical nature of the nervous system. I have talked about the electro-chemistry of impulse transmission. And I have rambled on about the complex nature of sensory inputs and the ways in which these manifest as reality. So, if memories are part and parcel of the nervous system, how, given what we know about the nature of nervous impulses, can we explain that intangible we know to be memory? This is where my images may help. First you should know that both were taken using long exposure. Because the rocks were stationary, they are clear, crisp, and may be easily discerned. The surrounding environment was moving under the influences of wind, current, and tide. Elements that were less well anchored moved about, while things which were more firmly attached moved less. Things that moved appear blurry, indistinct. Elements which moved less appear to be only slightly blurred, and some detail may be noted in these elements. Now, let’s go back to thinking about memory. To someone who isn’t a neuroscientist it might be difficult to imagine how new ideas may be stored in the brain if it is composed, at maturity, of a finite number of cells. So, any explanation that learning simply involves the addition of more brain matter cannot be right. What we do know about learning is that synaptic communication between and among neurons leads to the formation of new circuits for the transmission of electrochemical impulses and these may represent our behavioral and perhaps cognitive capacities. In fact it has been argued that both learning and memory are characterized by increases in neural connectivity and the formation of complex neural networks. Imagine, for example, any small number of individual neurons, and the vast number of circuits that might be established between and among them. It has always made sense to me that well established circuits may be more easily accessed when we attempt to recall them days, weeks, months, or even years later. Now, back to the images. The parts of each scene which were stationary sent lots of reflected light into the camera sensor and the subsequent rendition of those parts of the image is clear. Parts of each scene which were moving did not send as much information to the sensor and their subsequent rendition is less clear or not at all discernible. So, when you look at these scenes, imagine them as metaphors for the neural circuits of memory. Each has areas of crisp rendition, representing well established neural pathways, memories which we may recall with ease. Each has areas which are a slightly blurred, representing less well established connections, memories which we may only dimly recall. And each has very blurry areas which represent very dim memories which cannot be organized into coherent recollection. What do you think? Is all of this too much of a stretch?



19 thoughts on “Metaphor or simple bloviation

  1. God, I love this! It reminds me of the old conundrum – the analogy of a riverbed and neural connections. In the short term, the shape of a riverbed (neural network) dictates the flow of water (neural signals) because of its shape. But in the long term, the water’s swift voyage (or neural activity) dictates the evolving shape and construction of the riverbed (network). The stationary parts are only an illusion … in time, they too are eroded and swept away to form new patterns. Also, I learned a new word today – bloviation! What a great word. Very onomatopoeic!

    • Good question Steve. Imagine a series of four neurons, for example, A – D. One electrical pathway might run A,B,C,D … another D,B,C,A … and anothers C,A,B or D,A … the point being that each of these electrical pathways or circuits would have different ‘meaning’ in terms of learning and memory. They represent different patterns stimulation. So, it’s not the number of neurons that matter but the pattern of electrical interconnections among them. It has been estimated that the human brain is comprised of 100 billion neurons … perhaps you can tell me how many different circuits might run among and between these (would that be 100 billion factorial?). Now, how a nervous impulse runs among 100 different neurons such that that action has meaning, such as “Oh, it’s time to check my WordPress reader,” is not only beyond me … but beyond everyone else who thinks about such things. D

  2. It seems a good connection to me, but I am not only not a neuro scientist and this is possibly the only time I have read anything related to neuro science. I might add that science writing often glazes my eyes but I always enjoy and understand your posts. I imagine your students get a lot from your lectures. If you are metaphorical in this post, then my mind is like the first image only the rock is much smaller.

  3. There a few places I enjoy more than here. You, Elke, Michelle and a few more curatre places that take me away; let me see what may be otherwise hidden. Its way after dark here. Wind blowing through the trees: fir, spruce, maple, dogberry. Leaves fall from the silver maple by the shed. I’m in the chair right in the middle of it all. The moon – we share it. Temps dropping I’m wearing the canvas coat with the lining and the felt hat. Cripes – it was 15 just an hour ago now 5. Wife and eldest are in Calgary for this weekend – well he’s there til Xmas … whatever. Big country. Canadian Thanksgiving. Pairodox will be on the list of what I m grateful for this year. Again. Cheers.

    • Hey there Maurice … thank you for the kind words of inclusion .. they are very much appreciated. For real. Your evening sounds quite cool and the way you describe it, it sounded as if you were sitting out-of-doors! Five, with a blowing wind, isn’t comfortable. Ditch the coat and get inside with some popcorn and a good book. I enjoyed your musings on the 5-gallon bucket by the way! As I indicated in my comment there, it made me very glad for the water which is now running strong through the plumbing here. Not to draw this conversation too low … but, when Joanna and I find ourselves watching something like a Jane Austin movie (Persuasion, for example) we always comment on the lack of plumbing and how weird it must have been to use chamber pots … not so much for the well-to-do who actually used them, but for the servants who had to deal with them in the morning! And, what a production to have to excuse yourself from an elegant dinner to go and use the loo! D

  4. I see that your body isn’t the old thing that gets a work-out on your runs! I think this metaphor makes perfect sense. It also reminds us that everything you see isn’t only black or white, there are lots of gray areas too.

  5. I don’t think this is a stretch at all. I’ve read a bit about how trauma impacts the way memories are formed, and the foggy, blurry aspects of the photos invoke the lost, intangible events that the mind has yet to encode and save in long-term memory. The process of creating narratives is actually quite important to encoding, which then enables the memory to form. Events which have not been stored cannot be recalled voluntarily, but can be triggered by reminders, usually sensory data associated with the event. Therapy for trauma victims is focused on transitioning the fog to rock. I think the imagery and text fit very well together, indeed.

    • Yes … yes. I wonder what the physical basis is for the difference in memories which can be recalled and those that cannot. I too have heard that certain sensory inputs can trigger recall. Perhaps these inputs travel very hard-to-negotiate neural circuits which had been traveled at the time of the event of long-ago. The attempt to travel the circuit then somehow stimulates your own push to access the information? There is still so much to learn. I wish I had trained in neuroscience. D

      • I also wish I had trained in that field, or even psychology! (Ah, but then I guess we wouldn’t be the people we are now.) I am going to look in one of my books on the topic; I have this vague sense that it the recall varies depending on where, in the brain, the memory is stored. I’ll make that my task for the next little while. 🙂

  6. Aptly expressed and artfully depicted. Both images have a dreamlike quality , just like many of the memories that fill the spaces of our minds. Lovely, lovely.

  7. After our recent discussion I looked at the images first. The geek and sci-fi cliché lover immediately saw space ships emerging from the depths of some eerie lake or swamp where they have been hiding for 1000s of years (therefore the surface is covered with organic stuff or stone-like sediments.) I have just read Nicholas Carr’s book about automation, and he emphasizes the changes in neurons’ structure through deliberate practice – learning any skill by repetition (and how too much convenience and automation deprives us of that).

    • I saw your post in my reader … I will look forward to digesting it shortly. Are you and Carr saying that we are de-evolving? Are we losing computing capacity? D

      • I don’t think so – these patterns Carr and the scientists he cites refer to are the result of conscious, deliberate work. Currently we could re-develop them any time if we tried. The problem is that automation keeps us from trying hard as we don’t need to. I don’t know if this would ever lead to changed patterns already in new-born children – and Carr’s book does not focus that much on neuroscience.

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