The routes of memory

Although Paul Simon bestowed the praises of its slower sibs, I was a devotee of Ektachrome, way back in the day. The time of life in which there are children to photograph drove my transition to print film and, up until then, I had amassed a collection of more than 7,000 slides. These sat for 35 years; in closets in Indiana, in an attic in Pennsylvania, and now in a basement in Vermont. About a year ago I admitted that something needed to be done, for if I did nothing the collection might get lost or discarded, perhaps after I was gone, or it would deteriorate to the point where individual images could not be resuscitated. Using an Epson V500 I have, to date, scanned 4905 images. I hope to be done before spring. I have enjoyed looking at the images, as they are processed, and do not remember having taken many of them. There are a very few, however, which I do remember. Clearly. Especially the one below, taken more than 25 years ago. You may not like the way I’ve presented it but that way was intended to show what my memory of the experience is like, in my head, now. I have discussed this fascinating topic of memory before and thought about how a simple image may evoke experiences of long ago. I like to think about how sensory input can influence neural circuits. It’s not so much the neurons themselves, but stimulation of the connections between and among them, which may create the response we call memory. I imagine that when I originally experienced the moment at the beach, tens if not hundreds-of-thousands of neurons had been stimulated. Visual neurons, auditory neurons, perhaps even neurons that responded to temperature, touch, and taste. My point is that the very specific experience may be characterized by the summation of all of these modality inputs and their influence on my brain. That influence must be characterized by the very specific pathways taken by the inputs and the ensuing connections made between and among neurons as information made its way to higher processing centers. It is, perhaps, the pattern of information flow which forms the experience, and, by extension, the memory. So, when an image from the past is presented, those same neural paths, those connections, are somehow stimulated once again and the memory resolves into consciousness. Does it bother you that I have suggested a neurophysiological basis for memory? How could it be otherwise? Would you have preferred that I argue for the action of some ineffable, unknowable, agent? No, I believe that explaining memory as a side-consequence of the neural substrate of the brain is much more satisfactory.


26 thoughts on “The routes of memory

  1. One thing my teaching experience has taught me is that, when it comes to learning, memory is quite deceptive. How people learned to–say factor a polynomial–is nowhere like the way it likely was. We tend to remember many of our learning experiences by projecting back from our current position of knowing and gloss over the many hurdles it too to get us there. Parents who watch teachers painstakingly lead youngsters toward a concept of, say, multiplication wonder why they don’t just jump to the familiar algorithm we adults all know. What is forgotten, though, is the long painful path through grouping and through place value we took on our way there. The same is true for so very much.

    • Good point. I’m afraid that I have been guilty of using the ‘familiar algorithm’ technique without seeing the dangers of doing so. When we were homeschooling the girls I believe they would listen to my suggested strategy for doing one thing or another and then move along that ‘painful path’ on their own. Smart kids … they knew better.

  2. Boy, that scientific explanation is complicated, but I agree with you. It’s not just dumb luck that we have memories. They do fade with age … I can attest to that! Sometimes the memory is stronger the more you relate to yourself or others. I love this photo of C. The black and white makes it feel its age. Isn’t childhood wonderful?

  3. It is a very sweet memory and just as sweet an image, David. As far as whether your tying this memory to a neurophysiological function is problematic, I say absolutely not. OTOH, I have little knowledge regarding those workings, but I absolutely believe that memory as well as the majority of our functions as human animals are directly tied to the pulses that flow through our brains. I also believe that the magnetic fields around us and every other living thing … and non-living for that matter … are reacting to each other which plays a large role in our existence. Please, don’t ask me to explain that, I couldn’t. But it is something I feel is real. I have had memories come rushing back to my consciousness related to sights, sounds and smells. Not sure about taste or touch, but probably those too.

  4. Another great cross-over of art and science! Answering your question, I find your explanation perfectly satisfactory – I think I had brought up my favorite Feynman quote in the comments to another post here before – about knowing more about nature in scientific terms ( … Jupiter as a ball of gas … ) not hurting the appreciation of beauty. Speaking about childhood memories and photos, What I find odd is that, when I had taken photos, after some time I rather remember the images rather than the event itself – even when I don’t look at the photos often. As if the pattern according to the event itself is replaced by the pattern represented by the photos.

    • Agreed. To understand nature, in a materialistic sense moreover, only serves to make me appreciate it more. Your comment on photographs and memory is interesting. I suppose, now that I think of it, there have been some photos (in my experience) which are ‘iconic’ in a sense … and have come to represent the event, rather than its associated memory. Thanks for pointing this out to me.

  5. What a lovely image. It reminds me of childhood vacations at a Minnesota Lake. There are a few photos of those days, and I cherish every one of them. I need to spend some time scanning, too.

    • Seems as if this photo stimulated the same neural paths in both of us. How is it that those of us who were lucky to experience ‘childhood vacations’ on the water all seem to remember them so well? Although this photo was taken by me, of my daughter when she was small … it has the effect of bringing to memory all of my own childhood experiences at the seashore. I miss the smell of saltwater so. As a kid I lived along the (east) coast. Life took me on a path away from the ocean and I have, for nearly 30 years now, been trying to get back. My wife have recently settled in Vermont … we’re getting closer … the coast at Portsmouth is only an hour away!

        • Indeed. As kid I learned that the ‘midwest’ was anything west of Worcester (Massachusetts!) and land beyond that was uncharted. Indiana was way too far away … Pennsylvania was better … Vermont feels just right.

  6. Thank you, as I wonder how to deal with my large number of digital images, you have reminded me of the boxes of my father’s slides in the attic. Time to scan them, I think!

    • Indeed. It’s one of things that never gets done unless you simply get to work and do it. They don’t scan themselves! I took a quick look at dianaashworth to discover that you live in a very beautiful part of the world. We used to raise Shetland sheep for fleece for spinning and weaving. The images of your sheep in among the Blackberries (10/23/15) gave me shivers!

  7. What a great image. We have so many slides of our childhood, also, and a projector, to take out on occasion and view them on a big white sheet that we hang up. I didn’t know you guys were in Vermont now! Where did you move to? Very excited to have you all as neighbors, sorry I’m out of the loop. Must’ve been a huge deal to move with the animals and all. Also, you need not worry about offending anyone with choice of image – it’s your blog!

  8. Such a lovely picture. As always, you’ve captured the mood. Incidentally that new profile picture was taken when you were about eight.

  9. I quite like how you have presented this memory, and it seems similar to how I personally remember things. Gray and faded at best, sometimes just a vague gist, and often I am totally surprised when confronted with photographic evidence of which I have no recollection. I read somewhere once that every time we access those neuronal circuits that have stored our memories they become less accurate, or more dissipated. I can’t even remember if it was fiction writing or non-fiction. Regardless of its status in reality, I rather liked the idea of it. I sometimes think of accessing a memory as akin to making a withdrawal from a memory bank account. With my current, often foggy, memory at the age of 37, it is not hard for me to believe that they’ll be mostly all used up by the time I reach old age.

    • I’ve also read this – that each time you access a memory, you ‘contaminate’ it with other memories, current thoughts and feelings, which get mixed in with it until it resembles the initial moment less and less. I guess that’s why the fish in ‘big fish’ stories keep getting bigger! I Iove your bank account metaphor. There are some memories you only access rarely, to keep them as pristine as possible!

    • Interesting. So, in this way, the pathways become habituated to the stimulus and less likely to fire in the future? Sounds reasonable to me. I know that you were not offended by my materialistic stance … I hope that is the case for all who read this. D

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