Memory is Consciousness, Consciousness is Memory
My proposition is that memory and consciousness are one and the same.
There can be no memory without consciousness – that is, we cannot remember events that occurred while we were unconscious, whether asleep, anaesthetized, or comatose. Nor can we remember vents of which we were “unconscious”, even though we were awake and “conscious” at the time.
Equally, we do not remember memories when we are unconscious. Memory and consciousness are simply alternative names for the same condition of mental activity. Merely, we allocate these two equivalent terms differently on the basis of the temporal character (present or past) and stimulatory source (exteroceptive or interoceptive) of the events thus mentally recorded – consciousness for present exteroceptively referred events and memory for past interoceptively referred events.
That both are equally covered by the concept of consciousness is apparent in that one can be in a state of virtually complete perceptual deprivation and still be fully conscious in that one’s mental activity as memory does not cease in these conditions – it may contain elements of present awareness, but there is no exteroceptive perception; but one cannot be conscious, that is, awake to present stimuli, without the laying down of memory, however short-lived – one’s consciousness cannot be divorced from memory.
Although the investigation of consciousness has more or less halted at the starting post, considerable progress has been made, since the initiation of the study of cognitive processes in psychology in the 1950s, in the mechanisms of memory. What we have learned of the progressive processes of memory supports this identification.
Cognitive psychologists have identified three phases in the laying down of memory. Most ephemeral is sensory memory (“echoic” and “iconic” for sight and sound, respectively) of the multitude of stimuli impinging on us, from which a subset is selected (attended to) and further processed immediately, but which retains the vestiges of unattended sensation, which make their presence felt if, for some reason, Attention (processing) is switched to their fast-fading traces. Sensory memory has an accessible life of only a few seconds, and will disappear without trace unless subjected to further processing in the second phase of mental record keeping. Proximal consciousness, that is, consciousness of the world around us, is no other than sensory memory. This first imprint of sensory memory serves to give us the sense of continuity or stability of exteroceptive consciousness without the necessity of permanent storage or the vast mass of information with which we are constantly bombarded and which we necessarily monitor to maintain, mentally, our locational and temporal position in the world.
In the next stage of processing, the exteroceptive stimulus begins its progress into short term memory (STM, sometimes called working memory), selects from and succeeds sensory memory. It is essentially the memory we function on in our proximally conscious lives, interpreted by recycling of our permanent long term memories (LTM). Like sensory memory it records proximal stimuli but unlike sensory memory, it subjects the selected stimuli to a much “higher” level of processing, thereby providing them with a future in distal or recycled consciousness.
It’s storage is thought to be electrical and therefore subject to permanent loss if its electrical retention is interrupted before it can be transferred into its final and stable form. Its transfer is thought to take up to half an hour before it is completed. Evidence for this comes, for example, in the loss of memory for the half hour of so prior to a severe blow to the head. The lead up to the blow, and the blow itself cannot be recalled – are lost to memory – as if the person had been unconscious at the time, which was definitely not the case.
Permanent storage occurs in the third stage of memory formation, long term memory (LTM), which is laid down chemically in the brain via the electrical recycling of STM. It is thought possible that all stimuli (information) that have completed their transformation in STM are permanently stored in LTM, even if we have lost the paths of access for resurrecting them into consciousness.
Whether we retain their paths of access seems to depend on whether we recycle them into consciousness before they are moved into some hinterland of the brain, whence it may be they can have unconscious (conditioned) but not conscious influence on our behaviour. The role of review in keeping LTMs accessible is seen in the tactics of deliberate memorization, such as students used in preparation for exams in the past – dwelling on individual items of information and testing recall, or reading a text three times, after which it is well retained, while one or two readings are inadequate for comprehensive recall – indeed some degree of conscious review may be necessary to bring the STM process of transformation to completion.
As we have seen, “Attention” determines what stimuli will move from sensory to short term memory. Its significance for understanding the identity of memory and consciousness lies in what its investigation has revealed of the brain’s limited capacity as regards information processing, conceptualized as “central processing capacity”. The study of Attention amply demonstrates that we can only conscious of what we process, and that only what we process can enter memory. A limited central processing capacity means that we can only be conscious of a subset of all the potential information impinging on us at any one time.
The role of Attention in memory is limited to the primary element of consciousness, of being “awake”, of present exteroceptive processing. To fully comprehend consciousness, memory of what has been attended to in the past, that is, its interoceptive content must also be accounted for. Memory in its conscious form is the recycling of past processed information, that is, of the contents of earlier primary consciousness. This is at its simplest. But human consciousness consists also in recycling the contents of secondary consciousness, of what has been remembered previously, and of reconstruction its memories in what we call thought, and in recycling (bringing to consciousness again) the product of these reconstructions for further elaboration. Further, and most peculiarly human, consciousness as thought can reconstruct what has never been processed exteroceptively, but exists only as the memorial transcripts of language.
A cockroach when running about is conscious in the first sense (sensory processing of exteroceptive data), but we would be reluctant to admit it has consciousness in the second sense (the recycling of remembered sensory data). The psychological concept of conditioning attempts to explain the functioning of such creatures without invoking consciousness in the form we consider most essential to its human manifestation, namely its memory contents.
In what we call consciousness, recycled memory createsa new present out of its record of the past, which can function almost alone, or in synchrony with the on-going newly created record of the exteroceptive present.
Most people over 50 are aware that as their memory file has grown larger, just as with a paper file, locating the required memory can become much less immediate than in youth (when the file contents was smaller); and most will be familiar with the weird experience of trying to recall a name without success, only to have it suddenly arrive in consciousness several hours later, as if one had set an automatic search in motion which has finally come up with the answer when one’s thoughts were on quite another matter.
How we file our memories, how we “tag” them, for recycling in consciousness, whether they fade (chemically) or lose their access routes over time due to interference by memories laid down later in time – these are all matters that have been investigated in the experimental science of cognitive processes, and probably belong to “memory” rather than the more general field of “consciousness”. No doubt, too, there are neurological answers to these questions as well as phenomenological ones, if neurologists care to take them on.
Thus my original proposition that consciousness is coterminous with memory should be expanded to declare that consciousness is information processing plus memory in a continuous self-integrating loop of mental activity.. The characteristics of “Attention”, and “Memory” already uncovered in cognitive psychology are the characteristics of consciousness also – limited processing capacity, three neurophysiological forms or manifestations (the three stages of transfer) exhibiting successive loss of exteroceptive information, interference, interference of similar in the process of storage, the greater ease of “recognition” over “recall” in reactivating memory (stored information) into consciousness, and so on.
The last of this list indicates a need to distinguish in terminology between memory in its inactive (unconscious) and its active (conscious) modes. The terms memory and consciousness alone will not do, as we need to distinguish terminologically the exteroceptive and interoceptive (from LTM) contents of consciousness.
Work relating IQ and central capacity makes it a plausible hypothesis that there is a limited central processing capacity available to consciousness such that the greater the amount at any time devoted to the processing of new exteroceptive information (attendion), the less is available for recycling stored interoceptive interoceptive information (memory), and vice versa – hence the advantage of quiet (i.e. to eliminate exteroceptive stimuli as far as possible) or a familiar environment (familiar stimuli make less call on processing capacity) when engaged in deep thought or other creative production which is the restructuring of already stored information (memory), and a parallel need to be free from the distractions of memory and other cognitive tasks when executing environmentally interactive tasks demanding of attention to exteroceptive stimuli (e.g. playing tennis, doing a jigsaw).
Thus while a large part of our consciousness is forced on us by our current material environment, a large part also is constructed by ourselves from our stored memories of our past material environments – by our own peculiar, and to a large extent chosedn, system of memories, developed over time from what, among the multitude of impressions the world provides, we have recycled sufficiently to maintain accessibly in LTM.
Against this, it is also clear that the brain plans and executes many essential survival (including metabolic) functions without the monitoring interposition of consciousness, such that there is also some other allocation of its processing capacity devoted to enabling the organism’s preservation of homeostasis and intactness in a constantly changing external environment.
In implicit acknowledgement of the identity of memory and consciousness, the French use the word “rapelle!” – “recall” (remember) – as a road sign in dangerous spots, meaning, in fact, “concentrate” (attend, be conscious).
Nature from time to time publishes articles on consciousness which take neurological science as their starting point and in which the study of consciousness is conceived as a new departure in the field of the study of mind. It does not seem to be realized that consciousness has already been extensively studied phenomenologically under other names in the field of cognitive psychology. In neglecting these findings, neuroscientists deprive themselves of what might be useful points of departure and guidelines to direct their own investigations.