Memories and how they work for all of us

“Run you clever boy, and remember” says Clara Oswald to the eleventh Dr Who played by Matt Smith. The subtext throughout the series, and arguably, throughout the entire concept of the Doctor from Gallifrey is that memory is key to his stability in his many incarnations.

After all, as Kuato implies in Total Recall, memory is important, though its importance is poorly understood, which is why the moment we examine it, things get really interesting, really quickly.

For a start, memory and how we use it is intricately linked to the technology we use. Then, there is that worrying fact about the malleability of memory and the synaptic plasticity that requires specific actions to better encode specific events in our mind.

This means that, as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, Quaid, finds out in the brilliant, 1990’s Total Recall, who you are may not be who you think you are. Your actions may not tally with your thoughts because your beliefs are different to the ones you profess to hold. This is where it gets a little technical. Memory is both declarative (i.e. it allows us to remember what we know) and representational (i.e. we understand specific values that are the result of accrued knowledge and experience without directly accessing any of that knowledge and experience).

As you might have guessed, representational memory can be problematic as it is directional and closely linked to our attentional focus which has a real-world implication in marketing, branding and yes, ethics too.

All of this, at this stage, as you may have guessed; is cutting-edge stuff made possible by our latest tech toys that neuroscientists are using to peer deep into the mind as it makes decisions that affect our lives. There is a novelty factor here that I admit I find fascinating not least because I have the tendency to apply everything that is uncovered in the way I operate in the real world and see if it makes sense at a personal level (and, by implication if what I do, does too). Beyond the novelty however something else emerges.

Something deeper.

By peeling back the workings of our mind we begin to understand the evolutionary links that firmly bind, us, the higher-order beings capable of creating movies, writing books, communications across timezones and space and the animals we have come from. This is humbling not because it makes us realize that everything we are and can possibly become derives from the evolutionary progress of organic matter which is common to all Terran lifeforms, but also because we are not really that special.

To be clear: we are a miracle. Just not the only one on this planet of ours. It’s a sobering thought we’d do well to keep in mind.

So, on that note of specialness coffee. Lots of it (because we are almost the only ones who can drink it). And something sweet. I suggest donuts and croissants, cookies and chocolate ice-cream. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.

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