Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

The brain, memory, and learning

Posted by metaphorical on 19 December 2006

It sure would be nice to know how memory works, especially if you’re write memoirs or autobiographical fiction, or even if you’re just a journalist.

Yesterday, the NY Times reported that, “In Memory-Bank ‘Dialogue,’ the Brain Is Talking to Itself”:

New recordings of electrical activity in the brain may explain a major part of its function, including how it consolidates daily memories, why it needs to dream and how it constructs models of the world to guide behavior.

Brain researchers have long assumed that immediate memories are laid down in the hippocampus and later transferred to the neocortex for long-term storage. Dr. Wilson said the process was not just a transfer of memory, however, but more probably a sophisticated processing of data in which the neocortex learned selective information from the hippocampus.

“The neocortex is essentially asking the hippocampus to replay events that contain a certain image, place or sound,” he said. “The neocortex is trying to make sense of what is going on in the hippocampus and to build models of the world, to understand how and why things happen.”

That’s consistent with a hierarchical view of how the brain works. In a hierarchical model, low-level cells in the neocortex recieve data from sensory cells, process it a bit, and send it up the hierarchy to cells that get data, process it a bit, and keep sending it up the line. At each layer, more and more abstracting is done, until at the highest levels, completely abstract manipulation of concepts is possible. At each level, there’s a lot of feedback going on, with the higher layers helping the lower ones do their data processing by providing context gained from their wider perspective.

In hindsight, you would expect something just like the latest finding—a short-term storage bank, which can function as an ongoing repository of sensory-like data, for more detailed processing, being queried by the neocortex to create stable, long-term memories.

That still doesn’t provide a clear picture of any of the details of how memory works—and how it fails to work, when it doesn’t. Nevertheless, for those us introspecting and trying to figure things out, it’s a great starting point.

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