Memory, part 2 and tomorrow’s interview

The annoyingly superstitious part of me is reluctant to identify a person scheduled to meet with me until after that meeting has occurred. I recognize the many downsides to this. I mean, obviously I’d like to alert all who are interested to the wonderful and brilliant scholars who will have their words  and voices appear on this blog. I’d also like to help generate some traffic and conversations about those amazing people, helping to spread attention to their work outside of the renown they may already have within parts of Psychology.

While the benefits of identifying these scholars in advance are clear, that has to be balanced against the annoying possibilities of…

  • They change their mind and decide not to talk to me
  • They talk with me but withdraw permission after meeting me
  • They reschedule at the last second (and shouldn’t fear online hassling from this site)

So to avoid the potential mishaps with the above, or the like, I’ll avoid the names until captured with permission for the conversation.

Without identifying the name, I’ve been madly preparing to speak with this memory scholar and renowned thinker tomorrow. He was one of the first to let me know his willingness to meet and, after reading two dozen or so articles, monographs, and book chapters from his years of scholarly production, I think I understand why. He is keenly interested in the history of Psychology and has taken strides to reclaim, resurrect, and bring attention to some of the lesser known scholars whose critical ideas persist, while their names are lost.  While this scholar has been well recognized, I think (assume?) that his own interest in history of science and the science of Psychology is a worthy enough pursuit that it is valuable to take the time to support those working on it (like me).

All that aside, in preparation for tomorrow’s interview I’ve been reading a lot about the science of memory, its processes and functions. Yesterday I posted about consciousness and the question of whether we are conscious and if it even matters. Seemingly, whether conscious or not, our memories motivate future actions and shape our understanding of the world.  They do it for me as a fairly conscious and thinking human and they do it for mosquitoes and other species, regardless of their awareness. If I was not conscious of those memories, how would that affect my future actions? Put another way:  is my ability to plan and enact  behaviors directly reliant (and related in neurocognitive processes) to my ability to form and retain memories?

It’s such an important question! Why? Because as theorists sometimes we bias towards partialling systems based on how we experience them.  And memories feel separate than planning new things. Because if memories are functionally critical for future planning it affects how they might be encoded and retained. Because we tend to repeat past behaviors and this is a good goddamn reason for that to occur ad nauseum.

If memories form the basis of future planning then there are many implications. We’d  expect details more critical to future behaviors to be more salient and better encoded than ones that are only laterally related to such planning. I may recall where I was when I last ate decent Mexican food, but do I recall my clothes? Who I was with?  What we talked about? Well, maybe, depending on how much of that will play into what happens next. My eating tacos with complex savoriness and a meaty texture prompts my memory of the food. The sauciness and persistent oily drips made salient a memory about the shirt. Sadly, now every time I wear it I will be sporting those oil stains as hallmarks of a meal well enjoyed.

Or maybe I don’t remember, and the exact tacos were unimportant, because in  forming the memory for future planning I recognize that I don’t live there right now (see my post about this journey). I won’t order that food again (at least not from the same restaurant). Maybe my enjoyment was more about the pleasant reminiscing, about saying goodbye to some friends while setting out on a journey. I will  see the people again and will have encoded the details specific to maintaining those relationships.

My capacity for future planning and behaviors is directly tied to the way I form the memories. If memory is not about the past but about the future, then that also means memories need to be amenable to change. Preserving perfect detail is all well and good for a recording device, but minute (or possibly grand) memory changes may be more adaptive in memories.  I want to rely on my memory (as a guide to my life, as a guide to my behaviors, as a point of pride that “ah yes, I remember it well.”) But more importantly I want to be safe, successful, and effective  in my future actions. If that means allowing my cognitive resources to adjust my beliefs about whether mullets and mohawks are good haircuts (now or according to my past self), about whether I did or would go to a gym to exercise,  etc then I need to accept that. Because as I plan things for the future I will, potentially, degrade and cognitively re-simulate my past actions and remembrances.

There is an oft reported credo of cognitive science. Cognitive resources are limited. The brain takes shortcuts, it uses every available resource. It finds a way to cope with seemingly infinite amounts of data and distill that into actionable steps. Memory is only as good as it is functional. Preservation for the sake of preservation (and nothing more) would be a rather costly mental capacity.

So maybe calling it a memory system is the flaw. Call it a “futuring” system and reconceptualize that capacity for partial memory retention as a common benefit of successful futuring.  If the goal is the future and not the past,  then memory is doing pretty well, despite all those distortions, mistakes, absent-minded moments, and lost info items. Pretty well, indeed.

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