4.18.15–>”Why Biological Memory is so much better than Computer Memory”

Implicit, Explicit, Working…

working memory

Man, I’m really on a memory kick this week. It’s fun, I’m gonna keep running with it.

So there’s different types of memory. Here’s some descriptions so that what follows will make more sense.

Working Memory: This is one particular type of short-term memory. It is what we are conscious of right now and it can hold thoughts, impressions, sensations for a matter of only a few seconds. It can hold just five to seven items at a time. This is why it was determined years ago that phone numbers be kept to seven digits.

Implicit Memories: The unconscious memories of past experiences that are recalled automatically in carrying out a reflexive action or rehearsing a learned skill. For example, we call upon implicit memories to ride a bicycle or back our car out of the driveway. Thankfully we do not have to consciously remember how do perform these tasks every time as that would make life extremely exhausting. (If I understand correctly, these are like habits-what we now do without thinking.) Eric Kandel explains that an implicit memory “is recalled directly through performance, without any conscious effort or even awareness that we are drawing on memory.”

Explicit Memories (or “complex memories”): This is usually what we mean when we talk about our memories–the recollections of people, events, facts, ideas, feelings, and impressions that we’re able to summon into the working memory of our conscious mind. What we say we remember about the past. Like, right now I am remembering the awesomeness that was the Killswitch Engage concert at Bogarts in Cincinnati June 2013. That is an explicit memory that I just now brought back up into my working memory.

We could say that our working memory is like our scratch pad and our long-term memory (explicit) is like the filing system. Here’s what is so cool: whenever we drag a file out of our long-term memory to the scratch pads of our working memory before us right now (which is called “system consolidation”), it becomes a short-term memory again. It is reconsolidated, and gains a new set of connections–a new context.

“The brain that does the remembering is not the brain that formed the initial memory. In order for the old memory to make sense in the current brain, the memory has to be updated.” *

Biological memory is in a perpetual state of renewal. Have you ever read a book for a second time five or ten years after first reading it? It seems like a different book doesn’t it? Because you are a different person than you were when you first read it. Your brain has updated all the information to your current context.

Computer memory does not renew, it merely stores information as bits of data. Here’s where proponents of outsourcing our memory confuse working memory with long-term memory. 

When a person fails to consolidate a fact, an idea, or an experience in long-term memory, he’s not “freeing up” space in his brain for other functions. In contrast to working memory, with its constrained capacity, long-term memory expands and contracts with almost unlimited elasticity. Thanks to the brain’s ability to grow and prune synaptic terminals and continually adjust the strength of synaptic connections. “Unlike a computer,” writes Nelson Cowan, an expert on memory who teaches at the University of Missouri, “the normal human brain never reaches a point at which experiences can no longer be committed to memory; the brain cannot be full.” Says Torkel Klingberg, “The amount of information that can be stored in long-term memory is virtually boundless.” Evidence suggests, moreover, that as we build up our personal store of memories, our minds become sharper. The very act of remembering, explains clinical psychologist Sheila Crowell in The Neurobiology of Learning, appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future.**

We don’t constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence. The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.**

Again we see here the efficacy of the Bible’s encouragement to meditate upon God’s Word, works, and Person. To be single-mindedly focused so as to absorb Him. If we always go to Bible Gateway for Scripture recall instead of consolidating it within our hearts, the Word will remain on the page and lifeless. Meditation brings the Word off the page and into our very being where it can be in that perpetual state of renewal and thus transform us over time.

So the depth of our intelligence, of our very being even, hinges on our ability to transfer information from our working memory into our long-term memory where it can process and associate.

This challenge of transfer can be likened to filling a bathtub with a thimble. You know what, this is enough for today. We’ll talk about filling a bathtub with a thimble tomorrow.

Have a great day!

*Joseph LeDoux

**From The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

In the Name of Jesus,
Soli Deo Gloria

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