Saturday, April 09, 2005


Douglas Hofstadter, in The Mind’s I, discussing how the brain changes when we learn things and the nature of a self:

In fact, at every instant of our lives we are permanently changing our synaptic structures: We are ‘filing’ our current situation in our memory under certain ‘labels’ so that we can retrieve it at appropriate times in the future (and our unconscious mind has to be very clever doing this, since it is very hard to anticipate the kinds of future situations in which we would benefit from recalling the present moment).

The self is, in this view, a continually self-documenting ‘worldline’ (the four-dimensional path traced by an object as it moves through both time and space). Not only is a human being a physical object that internally preserves a history of its worldline, but moreover, that stored worldline in turn serves to determine the object’s future worldline. This large-scale harmony among past, present, and future allows you to perceive your self, despite its ever-changing and multifaceted nature, as a unity with some internal logic to it. If the self is likened to a river meandering through spacetime, then it is important to point out that not just the features of the landscape but also the desires of the river act as forces determining the bends in the river.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Complex stuff...but does our unconscious mind really have to be clever in 'labelling' the current memory being stored? I would think that memories are stored with a label about the context that they are created in--something that doesn't really require cleverness. This may not always be a perfect plan, but it may be more efficient than having a need for 'cleverness' of the unconscious.

I have heard that it is common for memories that are made while inebriated to be remembered best once one is inebriated again. For me, this suggests that memories are stored with a label about the context they are created in. If memories made while inebriated are cleverly labeled by the unconcious, then we would expect to remember them later when we may need them while sober, but this does not seem to be the case.

The existence of flashbulb memories, as unreliable as they may be, also suggests contextual memory labelling. In flashbulb memories, people often remember where they were/what they were doing when they heard about a very important event (often associated with emotion)--loved ones dying, president getting assisinated, etc. I have a 'flashbulb' memory of hearing about 9/11--I was in the gym at the Dalplex with a friend and heard about planes crashing into the WTC on the radio--thought it was nuts. I can't see how a memory system that cleverly labels memories would need to encode where we were when we heard about a certain event. I think this argues for contextual labelling of episodic memories, and Flashbulb memories are just those that are labelled 'better' than others because they are influenced by emotions.

I think this is only true for memories of life-events--episodic memories. If information-type memories that are formed, for example, while studying for a university course, were remembered best in the context they were created in, we may do shitty on exams. I have not found this to be the case. I can study in one location and remember what I studied fine in another location (as can everyone else). At times I have heard teachers suggest that they want to have their exams in the same room the class was in, so that we will be tested in the context we have learned in. It shouldn't matter. If it did, university would be useless. I think these people are thinking of the context-based labelling of episodic memories, and generalizing to information memories.

So do these informational memories require clever labelling? Maybe, but maybe not. To me, labelling memories about attentional networks as 'attentional networks' doesn't seem very clever, but maybe this shows my lack of undestanding of the complexity of our memory system.

8:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fun facts to build into your arguments, use them as you wish:

FUN FACT #1: Drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol (or consuming any other drug that interferes with REM sleep, i.e., all of them) can lead to the loss of 30-40% of information learned the previous day, and up to 48 hours later (as measured by the tower of London task). For a short video click:

and choose "Learning Under the Influence".

FUN FACT #2: In a study (following the Challenger disaster), researchers had 44 students write down exactly what they were doing and when (i.e. their flashbulb) for when they heard about the disaster. This task was completed the morning following the disaster. The follow-up came 2.5 years later, where they were again asked to write their flashbulb for the event. An example from 2.5 years (follow-up, time 2): “When I first heard about the explosion I was sitting in my freshman dorm room with my roommate and we were watching TV. It came on the news flash and we were both totally shocked. I was really upset and I went upstairs to talk to a friend of mine and then I called my parents." The same person, the morning after (time 1): "I was in my religion class and some people walked in and started talking about it. I didn’t know any details except that it had exploded and the schoolteacher’s students had all been watching which I thought was so sad. Then after class I went to my room and watched the TV program talking about it and I got all the details from that."

The stories of about one-third of those asked had changed this substantially.

Discuss on, discuss strong.

10:30 AM  
Blogger That which is called Darren said...

Hey there,
Loves the commentary. I find it interesting that this became a discussion about memory when my main goal was to prime thoughts about the nature of a self intertwined with the world and 'both' in control.

(I guess I'll flow with the go).
Jeff, I too had an issue with the use of the word 'clever.' Knowing more about Hofstadter's work, I assume he is just using short form notation to express a complex situation. So, it isn't really about cleverness, but it just 'is' and can be described as useful in some situations.

I was going to comment on flashbulb memories, but the second comment did that for me. Memory, any type, seems to be less than perfect for everyone, and terrible for many. I remember my cognitive sci prof saying "I have a distinct memory of being with my wife when JFK was shot... which is interesting because I hadn't met her yet."

Memories are both context dependant and context-free... but start to think about what might 'cause' a thought to pop into your head. In a way, all you have is context (meaning the external environment mixing with your internal systems to stimulate your being and have some of those stimulations become conscious thoughts), but I guess you could argue for 'degree of context.'

All that being said, (1) I'd like to think if my memory about 9/11 is accurate, and (2) I wonder what it should be if it isn't.

Once again, the appropriate line can be mentioned: Be careful what you believe, because it's true

10:29 PM  

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