Longer observation (12): A Suggested Model of Memory: Here I would like to make a suggestion for a possible research approach to Memory.
The Imagination is relevant to research. Images from within the imagination can form and guide Thinking about a subject in a way that is often more or less unconscious. Using Memory as our example, if memory is imagined as a container that holds individual memories, and if individual memories are imagined as little snapshots, then researchers will try to figure out what part of the brain is the memory "center" or "container" and where the little memory "images" begin in the brain and how they find their ways to the memory center. All sorts of further questions will follow: Where, within the center, are memories "stored"? In which "parts" or "sections" of the center are different types of images "stored"? By what "pathways" do images get into and out of the storage "areas"? How are the images "called up", and how do the "messengers" calling the images make their "requests" known? Etc.
When the imagination gets going it tends to keep going. It proliferates its images and can lead us down fascinating and seductive paths and side-paths of thought. It is only after the fact, that we realize we were lost in our imaginations, as it were. We look back and wonder if our science was really science at all or merely the excited chasing of a phantasm.
It may seem that we can do without the imagination altogether, bypass it and get right down to hard, serious thinking and science. I am not sure if this is a realistic goal, but I doubt it. It seems to me that what happens is that if we dislodge one image chain, another one soon comes and replaces it. The new image becomes the new guiding force, forming our questions and research plans.
In any case, I imagine Memory in a different way than as a container of stored copies or images. I am not a researcher, but I wonder what it would be like to formulate questions and design studies based on this way of imagining the situation. To put it another way, if I were a researcher on memory, I would like to try to think of memory and the brain more in accordance with the images I will now put forward.
I start by imagining memory as an inlet or sound of an ocean, created by the surges of the ocean, the rise and fall of the ocean. The ocean surges, and the inlet gets bigger. When the ocean calms and withdraws, the inlet shrinks and becomes shallow. It's boundaries keep changing. Giant surges of the ocean waters make the inlet overflow. If the topography and geological features are receptive, the water will become channels and rivers. And the rivers will have streams and brooks running from them. If the waters recede enough, the beds of these rivers and streams become dry. When the waters surge again, the rivers carve new beds. The form of all the rivers and rivulets change and change again. The whole inlet is more or less stable, but its edges are constantly changing, and, in dramatic circumstances (senility), its whole bed can be re-formed or even drained of its waters. In normal circumstances, once the tributary beds are formed, they are more or less stable and permanent, but, like memories or systems of memories that seem permanent and stable, they can change without anyone knowing they've changed.
Memories aren't retrieved; they surge here and there, become active or remain hidden and calm. New waves, new ocean events, leave their mark. Events surge over the brain leaving channels that are re-drawn in subtle and not so subtle ways with the next surge. Brain configurations are constantly being redrawn with each new event. The event and the memory are not of different kind. There aren't two places, one for perceptions and one for memories of them. The river is the ocean surge and is part of the ocean and is part and parcel with the ocean.
Memories come, stay for a time, and fade just as small streams may change their courses each years, maybe not all at once but, little by little, moving in new directions, forgetting the old, until the old is gone forever, without a trace. Or earth and rocks fall onto a stream and divert it in different directions or cover it up all together. Or a number of seasons without any water, dry the stream altogether, and then its beds are eroded away by natural conditions acting over time until there is barely a trace.
Smaller rivulets are swamped by floods of new events and fresh, living memories cover the old peaceful brooks. Raging tempests, traumas, carve deep troughs that never disappear and can't be forgotten or diverted.On the other hand, cherished memories slide away, washed for years by the gentle waters of time, until, one day, they are no more. Their disappearing was never noticed, and the discovery that they have disappeared is shocking.
As one gets older and older, the smallest rivulets from the newest rainfalls, or the tiny little puddles that have not yet gathered together and are not yet running anywhere, come and go, gone as quickly as they formed. Gone forever. They are not part of anything, the weakened mind, the dried up old brain, has no way of allowing them to unite and cohere and to become a stream. Memory breaks up more and more, until, at the end of life, it is all gone, or, possibly, it is just one big ocean of memory in which memory and non-memory are one.
The image of memory being an ever-changing system of waters, ebbing and flowing, raging and placid, and so on, is a different image from memory as a container for images. I am not a researcher and have not spent time trying to see how these images might play out in testable hypotheses regarding memory and the brain. Also, I am not suggesting that this is the correct image or the most fruitful image for guiding research in the field. I am just wondering if it might not be helpful in some situations.
One example of the possible interaction comes from the image of minerals from the ocean floor, from the deepest part of the ocean, being swept up in some giant earthquake, and winding up in every part of the earth, in parts where there is no longer any sea. A parallel might be that the giant events of memory should not be looked for merely in some part of the brain or in the whole brain and maybe not even in the nervous system. When something big "comes over you," maybe it comes over the whole body and filters into every cell and never leaves. Every cell, every part of every cell, every atom in every part of every cell is, by this image, memory.
Or, at least, these images suggest a different way of thinking about memory and might lead to different streams of research ideas. A change in the image paradigm, in the guiding archetype (to use Jung's concept), can lead to a change in thinking and in approaches to reality.