Memory – Beyond the Individual (part 1)

Posted by: David

A biologist friend of mine once explained how he thought birds were able to migrate so far and so very precisely each year. He not only thought that landscape features actually triggered their memories, but he also thought that the landscape itself held the part of the memories of the birds. How is that possible?

First, we must understand that no individual in any species is an independent agent. Each individual is a part of a community, a collection of individuals. They are also intricately related to their food sources, their predators and environmental characteristics. Even the minerals, rocks and atmosphere are in many ways part of that individual. Or it might be better to say that each individual is a part of a greater living community. This biologist was saying the same thing for memory in birds. Memory is not only stored in neurons, but also in chemical, auditory and visual triggers outside the brain. Those triggers might be other organisms, or even landscape objects, such as the coastline or Mount Shasta. Even though a hummingbird has a brain the size of a pea, it can migrate precisely to the correct location each year, simply because a hummingbird’s brain is not the size of a pea, it is the size of all of its memory triggers, which may indeed include the landscape itself.

An example of this would be your right hand. By itself, it would have no idea how to get back to your mouth with a second bite of food, but in conjunction with your arm, mouth, body, eyes and brain it can make that motion quite easily. You might argue that hummingbirds aren’t like your hand, because a hand doesn’t have a brain the size of a pea, and that a hummingbird is more like red blood cells going out and returning to the heart. Like a red blood cell, a bird travels a defined pattern and there’s no real memory occurring there. Okay, that comparison may be correct. However, rather than not being memory at all, the memory that a hummingbird employs may just a more primitive form of our own.

Primitive Memories vs. Complex Memories

Humans may also have memories much like hummingbirds. Primitive memory types allow us to do our daily tasks. You don’t have to think too much to remember how to walk or ride a bike. Understanding how these simple memories work may help us understand how less complex organisms remember how to do things.

In humans, highly complex memories may have their triggers stored in the intangible, such as words and sounds, or in the tangible, such as places, people or smells. These triggers can alert in our minds complex scenes, visions and thoughts that in no way relate to our present location. They can be as powerful and vivid as a post-traumatic stress syndrome event or an hallucination in which the person cannot differentiate his physical surrounding from the memory.

But this still doesn’t explain what memory is. Above, I spoke of triggers. You smell a certain type of cooking and you are flooded with a memory in a great aunt’s kitchen years before. Or a hummingbird sees the coastline and adjusts its wings to the left. How are these triggers activating memories? Could it be that inside the brain, there are just great arrays of triggers upon triggers conjuring up a memory? Sort of. Here’s an example.

A Mountain of Triggers

Let’s say you’re looking at a view from a mountaintop. The colors come into your eyes and excite a particular set of neurons. Simultaneously, the wind and temperature of the air excite a particular set of neurons. You see and feel the beautiful landscape. You might even have a particular emotion going on because of someone you’re thinking about. Now you use your camera and take a picture of that scene and go home. The next day, you look at the picture and the various cues in the picture trigger a chain reaction of neurons in your brain. The same or similar set of neuron is activated giving you the vision of the mountaintop scene. Now that this particular community or relationship of cells is activated again, the relationships of cells are reformed, the memory is ‘burned in’. The next time you look at the picture, the community of cells will be activated through a cascade of triggers, and there you have it, you see and feel the scene from the previous day.

If this is all true, then we may be gaining a dim understand of what memories are. Memories may simply be complex communities of triggers. And, what’s interesting to me is that the relationships between those triggers may extend beyond the local individual that is experiencing memory. Our memories might literally be in a photograph.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

One important question begs to be answered. This is the whole consciousness/awareness issue. How does our mind’s eye work? We may be able to have memories, but how did we see them in the first place and in the second place? It’s probably just magic, right? I expect not, I don’t particularly believe in magic. Magic is just an illusion. We live in an orderly universe. We may not comprehend that order, but it has a particular order. Magic is what tricksters do.

I suppose I’ll get into the whole awareness/consciousness thing in Part 2.



Filed under Consciousness

5 responses to “Memory – Beyond the Individual (part 1)

  1. mhz1936

    Very challenging and interesting – as always. Many new ideas to think about. Undoubtedly there is a body of professional literative in neurology, human and animal studies,l that address some of the issues.
    You mention initial triggers. I guess depending upon what one defines as tangible/intangible, they can be differentiated. All the triggers you define you describe are tangible: words, sounds, (aspects) of people, places….Intangible triggers might be secondary triggers, within ourselves (our brains, mainly), that are touched off by something external, a sensation or perception. The “cascade of triggers” makes sense, in any kind of complex “memory.” But our ability to recall a “scene” from memory seems like it’s got to be a succession of triggers, a “complex community of triggers.” But I wouldn’t be surprised if your idea is closer to what’s really happening. We need a neurologist to comment.
    When you say, “Our memories might literally be in a photograph,” it seems to me that you are moving into the realm of metaphor and becoming “unscientific” in your theorizing! Rescued, however, by your final comment re the orderly universe and the fact that there are more aspects to that order that we do not understand; but that we can be confident that there is a unquestionably a lawful process and order to all things.

  2. David

    I used the phrase “a complex community of triggers” because I wanted to compare it to ecology. It’s like the image gets burned into a community of neurons, but then over time that community shifts and changes depending the ‘environment’. Hopefully, the memory retains its base foundation, so that the core aspects of the memory stays true. However, we know that people are really good at altering their memories, especially subconsciously. In any case, I do think that memories act much like communities of plants and animals do over time. One interesting thing about plant communities, is that if the environment stays steady so does the plant community, even though the plants die and change successionally. Specific areas known to grow heather on the side of Mount Rainier have supposedly been growing heather in the same locations for thousands of years. Relate this to our neurons and you’ll see how memories persist for years, even generationally as the memories are passed as stories.

  3. John

    Just one comment. I read that smell evokes more memories because the sense of smell originates in the most primitive portion of the brain. Also, I read that if a person says that the smell of bacon, say, woke them up this morning, they are incorrect because the sense of smell is the last of the senses to awaken in the A.M.

  4. David

    Interesting. So, if there’s a order to the senses waking up, what is it?

    Sound, smell, light?
    Pressure, sound, light, smell?

  5. ellisjay

    I believe latest research indicates a sort of in-built gps based on geo-magnetic pulls. Whooping cranes, apparently, need learn landscape, but some birds, pelagic, can migrate cross oceans while asleep.

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