In preparation for my next conversation I’ve been reading a lot about memory. The structure of the representation in the mind; the physical correlates of memory and its encoding in the brain; the processing divisions causing memories to be implicit vs. explicit, some level of specific, some level of generality. With a topic as big and as philosophically important as memory (and its many implications for the structure of thought itself), it is difficult to avoid the drifting of my mind to some of those big, deep questions of cognitive science.
The one I seem to come back to time and time again, is why do humans have consciousness (or at least think that we have consciousness)? There are some antecedents to consider for this question that I will revisit with you.
a. Do we think most species have some form of conscious awareness? Plants and trees will grow towards the sun, extend their roots towards sources of nutrition, but surely they don’t have any awareness that is what they are doing. Working our way to amoeba, protozoas, and the like, they certainly move around and show great activity in their living spaces. But at one cell and no neural structure to speak of few would argue that they are conscious. Okay, so up the evolutionary chain we rise to multi-celled organisms. Tardigrades, insects, arachnids, fish, reptiles, birds? Low-level mammals (e.g., rodents), dolphins, primates? Are some of these conscious? How do we know? And if we are conscious, then what does that even mean?
At the moment I think I’m conscious. I’m aware of sitting at a table, typing at this computer, thinking these thoughts. I’m also totally unaware of so much. My consciousness barely scratches the surface of the perceptual phenomena in my space (so many unheard frequencies out of my audible range, parts of electromagnetic energy beyond my capacity to see or feel or absorb into receptors). Even in terms of my own body and actions I only barely scratch the surface of all that I can and should do. The freedom availed to me for conscious action in this body is limited to what I am aware of. Add to my environment one or maybe several thousand advertisements each day and my awareness is primed to process and consider those new options — maybe previously things I was unaware of. Yes, I will have that refreshing soda, why didn’t I think of it before the commercial ran? If my consciousness and decision-making couldn’t be affected by advertisements, we would not see billions of dollars invested annually on their continued and increasingly persistent existence.
So maybe I’m conscious. Maybe you are too. Maybe my mom’s dog, Manny, is conscious, he certainly is aware of some things. Maybe the mosquito I nearly swatted (but missed) is conscious. New research suggests that mosquitoes effectively detect patterns and are more attracted to people who haven’t swatted at them (e.g., Wolff & Raffell, 2018 in Journal of Experimental Biology). Or maybe the concept of consciousness is just a vague, and partially self-delusional notion. Maybe, as Ben Libet’s studies have been used to suggest, I merely think I am in control of my thoughts and actions after projecting backwards in time my thoughts, while, in actually, my brain has initiated reactions and behaviors about 200 ms before my consciousness kicks in. Thus, my awareness is secondary to my actions.
It’s a bit of a pickle. And not one I plan to solve, but one that puzzles me. Moreover, its a set of questions that directly bears on how I think about and try to understand a model of memory — whether implicit, explicit; conscious or subverted. I know my mind, my body, my brain is affected by the environment. Those affects change my future behaviors, presumably improving my efficiency and safety in behaviors. The memories exist. What I can’t seem to puzzle through is whether it matters or not if I am conscious of those memories. And, if I am conscious of them, do they get processed and stored in some separable and meaningful way? Maybe one of the memory scholars I hope to speak with can set me straight about all this.
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