A Sense of Self: Memory, the Brain, and Who We Are
Part 1: How We Make Memories
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we know something because we have seen it, heard it, felt it, smelled or tasted it.
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sensation is the thread that feeds the loom of understanding and memory.
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We are at a period in history where we are in awe of the revelations of neuroscience rather than of the extraordinary cultural mythologies that have heretofore explained the experience of being human.
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The mind is a blank slate at birth, and sensate experience of the world accumulates to form knowledge and memory.
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In Common Sense, Paine laid out a clear case for a natural equality, rather than an innate inequality, among people. This could not have been written without the Sensationalist idea that we are constructs of acquired sensory information.
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The splitting of human experience and function into ‘body, mind and soul’ continues to permeate most cultures. The common denominator of all these religious and spiritual systems is that of implanted or external knowledge, the third eye, a force beyond the individual. Neuroscience is fascinating to us not just because it helps us understand ourselves, for which we have an insatiable curiosity, but also because it liberates us with scissor-snip conclusiveness from third-eye phenomena.
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the world is conveyed to you only through your senses and that we make sense of it all through the pervasive connectivity of brain circuitry
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Sensation is the fundamental raw ingredient that feeds the brain: the substrate upon which the pervasive connectivity in the brain is based. Memory is, in its essence, the infinitely complex neural representation of sensory information that has been carried to the brain.
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What we call a sense is also a memory: seeing is both the immediacy of the sight of the object and the identification of the image. This brings us back to Bergson’s quotation from 1896 that I opened this chapter with: ‘In truth, all sensation is already memory.’
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We make sense of whatever our senses feed into the brain, forming memory pathways and interpretative frameworks that are dynamic.
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Memory is not static: it is in a state of flux in a never-ending dance with sensation.
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Joseph came to organize the information coming from the sensate world into plausible and superficially coherent systems. If looked at from the outside, Joseph’s worldviews were ‘crazy’, but they had an internal logic that explained his experiences.
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another map for nerves that come from inside the body, delivering what is called ‘interoceptive’ sensation. The interoceptive cortex, called the insula, is in a fold of cortex not visible from the outer surface of the brain, rather like our feelings. The insula is very important because it interprets ‘gut’ feelings. We will look at this in a coming chapter, but just note for now that the way we experience the world is determined as much by the interoceptive as the exteroceptive inputs to the brain.
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the hard wiring of the genetically inherited brain and the soft wiring of experience that is grown by sensation, in a complex interplay of memory and learning. Soft wiring is how the brain wires to adapt and to learn. There is an ongoing organic interplay between hard and soft wiring.
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Sensation is primarily about discrimination between incoming stimuli, and discriminatory mechanisms are common across all sensory interpretations. The brain learns to discriminate one shape from another by touch, one image from another by shape, and so on. The same with sound. Sounds are identified in relation to other sounds: think of musical scales and keys, or the different beats of music. Discrimination of one image or sound from another leads to pattern formation and hence recognition, the basis of memory.
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The language of the neuroscience of the senses has shifted from a sense-specific cortical model to a computational meta-modal organizational model reflecting the highly connected brain.
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Vision, like all sensation, cannot be separated from memory, and the two interweave to form perception.
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There is now evidence that the overall neural wiring of the sensory pathways in the brain that project to the cortex is different in schizophrenia.
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Each of us is a mixture of soft and hard neural wiring that develops from an initial state of nerve pathways laid down in fetal development and that grows with input from the world of experience. Sensory information becomes discriminated as memory becomes more elaborated through experience. This is the basis of perception and the perceptual constancy within which we automatically filter the world, giving each of us an individual and unique filter, our memory.
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We are actually, factually, neuronally wired to learn through the coordinates of time-place-person. The story of how we are wired to learn through these coordinates is the story of the hippocampus, and the matter of memory.
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another level of memory–time, place and person–which we will henceforth call ‘event’ memory. Event memory involves a bringing together of disparate sensory information in the dynamic living world. It is memory for what happens.
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In the real organic life of the human, brain function and matter are indistinguishable, because every experience in the brain, whether a normal or an abnormal one, is based in matter and how that matter functions. Until the ‘Decade of the Brain’ in the 1990s, the discipline of psychiatry was considered by most people, including practitioners, to be in the domain of the intangible ‘mind’, while neurology was in the camp of the ‘organic’ brain.iii Neuroscience is quietly transcending mind–brain dualism with new insights about brain function, without having to argue the toss about brain versus mind.
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you cannot make a past without first making a present. The hippocampus makes a present because it integrates the sensory inputs from the cortex into a story of the present.
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while the right and the left hippocampus serve somewhat different memory functions they have a common mechanism of action.
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Once the signals arrive from the cortex, they are processed through the cell-layers of the hippocampus that create new connections among the hippocampal cells. The signals cause hippocampal neurons to connect together, and the newly connected-up hippocampal neurons are essentially ‘memory codes’ of the nerve signals from the sensory cortices.
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much of the memory that we use in routine daily tasks is stored in the cortex and may not involve using the memory factory of the hippocampal circuitry.
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In 1949, in his book The Organization of Behaviour, Hebb described his theory of how neurons make memories, and how these memories go on to help organize brain function. He hypothesized that bunches of firing neurons connect up together to form cell assemblies that become wired together. The cells wire together through the formation of connecting dendrites made from the electrochemical energy of the nerve signal. The connected-up cell assembly subsequently fires as a single unit so that, if any of the constituent neurons of the cell assembly are then stimulated, all of the neurons will fire. This cell assembly represents a memory.
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The ‘Hebbian’ model of dendritic growth, through the firing and the subsequent increased connection of adjacent neurons, is now accepted as the cellular basis of memory. The dendrites are all-important in this process, because they transmit the nerve signal from one neuron to the next. Greater dendritic growth means increased connectivity among neurons.
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Neurons can have up to 15,000 dendritic outgrowths and, you may remember, there are 68 billion neurons in the human brain; consider, then, the astronomical possibilities of connectivity among them through dendritic arborization and new synaptic formation. It is not magic, but it almost seems to be so because there are virtually infinite possibilities.
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On a molecular level, the formation of a solidly connected memory from an ignited cell assembly depends on the many factors that influence the strength of incoming signals. If the strength of the signal is at a key threshold, the neuron will make the dendritic proteins and the memory will become more permanent. If the signal is poor, the cell assembly firing will fade away, and there will be no wiring. Cells need energy to grow the dendrites and the energy comes from the electrical activity in the neurons–the more firing, the more wiring.
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There are a limited number of hippocampal neurons, and they are in a constant state of assembly, disassembly and re-assembly as we negotiate the present sensate world and consolidate, or not, a memory assembly.
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The hippocampus is intrinsically plastic and can actually be seen to ‘grow’ as a unit in some situations of intense memory-formation. A striking example of hippocampal growth following learning is the famous London taxi-driver study, in which the right hippocampus was found to be measurably bigger following two years of intensive learning of routes.
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We now know that depression is associated with a smaller left hippocampal volume and that this reduction is greater if depression is recurrent or has been long-lasting.
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the right hippocampus is more important for place memory, and the left for biographical memory.
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there is a constant dialogue between the hippocampus and the cortex, and much memory is ultimately stored in the cortex. Neurons in the cortex, in contrast to those in the hippocampus, are more difficult to change or rearrange–they are less plastic. This means that memory maps laid down by the multiplicity of interwoven cell assemblies in the cortex are relatively resistant to change and therefore to damage. Having the two systems of memory, one that is rapid and plastic, and one that is slower and more stable, means that we can continue to learn and adapt to change within a relatively stable system of knowledge.
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We now know that, as memories age, they diffuse up to the cortex from the hippocampus, and that it can take months or years for this process to occur. Neuroscientists can now see that the hippocampus primarily lights up when recent events are being recalled, whereas the prefrontal areas are engaged with the recall of more remote events.
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The hippocampal-prefrontal circuit is the main neuronal highway that processes your personal history over a lifetime. 24 The prefrontal cortex network is the storyteller, gathering information from all over the brain in ‘working memory’ to tell the story.
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Electrical activity recorded from the scalp during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep resembles the firing activity that wires hippocampal cell assemblies. These rapid electrical brain cycles during sleep represent the zapping of the cortex with the daily load of newly formed memories from the hippocampus.
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The hippocampus will take whatever is presented from the cortical world of your sensation and convert it through the cortex into your human story.
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how emotion, what I will call the sixth sense, is woven into sensation and biographical memory.
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The olfactory nerve runs horizontally from the back of the nose to a structure in the brain called the amygdala–the heart of the matter of memory (see Figure 6). I call the amygdala the ‘emotional sparkplug’ of the brain, because it triggers emotional responses and feelings. It is situated directly in front of the hippocampus, with which it is densely interconnected, and into which the amygdala weaves its emotional synapses. When neurons link up, as we know, they form cell assemblies that all then fire together. Amygdala–hippocampal connections form the basis for emotional memory.
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like the hippocampus, it has direct connections with the sensory cortices, in particular the visual cortex, facilitating emotional response to imagery.
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smell neurons from the nose go first to the amygdala–hurtling into it from the short run from the nasal passages–before reaching the olfactory cortex. This is why we experience an immediacy of emotion when we smell.
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The smell and taste cortices overlap and this is why taste and smell are often difficult to distinguish from each other, or, rather, why smell is an intrinsic part of taste.
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it is possible to learn to modify autonomic functions through meditative work, and this is the basis for mindfulness.iv
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Emotions are constant across cultures and time, indicating that the biological machinery for feeling states is universal.
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somatic hallucination–a sensation experienced as coming from the body that is probably arising in the brain. A somatic hallucination, although infrequent in psychotic states, is one of the key experiences that indicate a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
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the insula is a sensory cortex of inner visceral sensation that lights up when we experience emotion.
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the never-ending neural re-constructions of the plastic dendrites in the hippocampus to make cell assemblies that are then woven during the night into the more stable cortical networks,
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the amygdala engages in a dendritic dance with the hippocampus, arborizing feelings to hippocampal memories, before coming to the more restful repository of the prefrontal-insula circuitry.
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Considering this centrality of place in memory it is not surprising that the most important cells in the hippocampus are the cells that recognize place and are appropriately called ‘place cells’. 48
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Although I tend to have an unreconstructed primitive amygdalar reaction to Freud’s brand of misogyny, one of his more enduring and important legacies is the idea that memories that lead to feeling states are not always present at levels of conscious awareness.
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It seems that there is a gateway mechanism that controls the access of sensory information from the body to the cortex, and if this is shut–in states of impaired consciousness such as a coma–then the cortex will remain in a sleeping, low-voltage state of arousal. Cells need to be charged to fire and permit sensation and memory processes. If the brain stem ‘wake up’ switch is malfunctioning, cortical neurons will not wake up and will not fire and flare to create sensation or to form memories of the sensate world.
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I myself think that the only place that time does not exist is in the moment of consciousness. The past and the future are more like what we conceive as ‘time’, but the present belongs to consciousness.
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memory becomes less certain as it recedes from the relative certainty of present consciousness. Events continue to happen and the dendrites continue to rearrange, making the original memory less exact.
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as Pooh Bear tells children, ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why we call it the present’.
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Scientific stress literature originated in endocrinology, because cortisol is a hormone, and in psychiatry, because severe brain stress is present in mental illnesses and may be germane to the cause of depression. Back then, the idea that the stress hormone cortisol is a proxy measure of physiological and psychological stress, which is now common knowledge, had not yet been established.
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The stress system is ultimately controlled by the brain and is called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, in reference to the brain centre and the body organs that are involved in the control of cortisol release. The hypothalamus–the headquarters of the autonomic nervous system that makes the rainbow of our emotional states–makes a hormone (CRH) that is carried in the blood system from the brain. This brain hormone ultimately causes the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands.i As
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Neurons have to be charged to a minimum level to transmit a current to an adjacent neuron. A critical period of neuronal arousal is needed to achieve the requisite electrochemical energy to form the proteins required for new synapses that make the cell assemblies that constitute a memory.
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We have followed the neural rush of sensory experience from the exteroceptive world and the interoceptive body as it gets woven into hippocampal and amygdalar memory, and is then consolidated, or not, in cortical memory.
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Place is the solid thing around which the moving film reel of life events are recorded.
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humans are a construct of their own memories, but these memory systems are, at any moment of consciousness, in a dynamic never-to-be-repeated balance of the entropy of the incoming world making its neural impression within the relative stability of cortical memory maps. In this neural momentum an individual lays down fluid neural pathways woven from experience and, somehow or other, forms a narrative framework that becomes ‘them’.
Part 2: How Memory Makes Us
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It seems to me that one’s first conscious memory is one’s first moment of self-recognition, or self-awareness. One has to see oneself before memory of oneself can begin.
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None of us can be outside of our own brain; we can only try to make sense of the sensory information that is delivered to the sensory cortices, and thence to the higher brain for integration.
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The brain will continue to make dendrites and connect up neurons even if there is no resulting real-life meaning, because this is how neural mechanisms operate. The brain does not stop organizing because the input will have no rational overall meaning. Memory will continue to be formed because cell assemblies will be put together in the hippocampus and will be transported to the cortex in the dynamic functional connectivity that is the biological life of the brain.
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The process of gathering and organizing sensory memory takes place at a galloping pace in the expanding cortical networks during childhood. Children are immersed in the sensory world, relatively free of the abstract ‘short cuts’ that develop with the more organized cortex. The absence of abstract thinking is apparent in the way that children tell a story. Events follow events without being assigned meaning . . . they have memorized images in chronological order and they recall them in the same sequence. Their output of non-assimilated imagery, the absence of context and meaning, is delightfully naïve and sometimes illuminating, because it gives us an insight into our learned ways of looking at the world.
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As an infant learns about the world, the connections among the neurons in the cortex become less dense. Pruning in the sensory cortices peaks at about three years of age but continues throughout childhood at a declining pace. The prefrontal brain develops at a later and slower pace, because it is the principal brain area where inputs from the cortical sensory areas, from the amygdala-insula and from the hippocampus, come together to be sorted out. It is where information from multiple areas is ‘held’ to be manipulated.
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Pruning cuts over-expansive spread of signals and creates neural pathways for discriminating between signals, allowing the development of systematic thinking, or abstract reasoning. Pruning facilitates the organization of vast amounts of input, enabling the developing brain to take shortcuts through learned pathways of knowledge. Prefrontal pruning is the neurodevelopmental signature of the adolescent brain, but it continues to occur throughout the twenties and thirties, something that has been discovered only relatively recently.
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The brain is made up of patterns of grey and of white matter: grey matter is composed of clusters of neurons, and white matter is composed of the axons that emerge from the neurons to carry the signal down to the dendrites and into the next neuron. The axons are white because of an important process called ‘myelination’, in which fatty spirals of myelin–which look like microscopic swiss rolls–are wound around neurons. These fatty cells provide insulation that speeds up the signal transmission, up to 100 times that of an unmyelinated neuron. Myelination halts the promiscuous firing of neurons with each other as the signals pass down the axons and is part of the process of targeting signals to go in key directions.
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The general scheme during early development is that neurons arborize in a promiscuous way during prenatal and early postnatal brain development to maximize foundational information, and then become pruned to discriminate and sharpen sensory input during childhood. In later childhood the prefrontal dendritic shoots get pruned to provide cognitive and emotional ways of understanding the world. Some interneural pathways are strengthened because of being frequently fired, while others fade, leading to relatively fixed and automatic networks of interpretation. 106
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The pattern of initial over-elaboration of new information occurs with all new information and throughout life, and it will be familiar to anyone who has tackled a new area of knowledge, and not just lifted information from the internet. There is an initial period of being lost and overgeneralizing in the sea of novel information, before emerging with an organized, contextual understanding of the new subject: knowledge expansion followed by knowledge discrimination.
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As neuroscience expands to an understanding of the brain as an indivisible connected-up mega-tangle of neurons,
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Intuitive knowledge may seem to be speculative, but it is not a wild guess–it is grounded in hidden information that has become automatic. You know that you know something but you may not be sure of how or why you know it. The immediate intuition that the rustling in a holly tree may be a mistle thrush is built on the layers of cortical association memory that are activated when I see and hear this combination. The intuitions that one has are the outputs from current brain inputs pitched against neural patterns in working memory.
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Information becomes more permanently organized into neural patterns as myelination progresses during early adulthood and relatively fixed ways of thinking, imagining and feeling, of generally being in the world, progress. With prefrontal myelination comes the ability to take shortcuts through abstract information.
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In older adulthood, reasoning and prediction improve, and sensory function but not, importantly, sensory appreciation, declines. Little is known as yet about the brain changes that occur from middle to late adulthood, except that hippocampal volume and hippocampal efficiency decline, as part of the heave from the exteroceptive to an abstract inner world.
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As we age, sensation is no longer knocking down the door to swarm the brain: it is being increasingly deftly processed without much attention being applied. Adults may even get to the point where they automatically process, and fail to appreciate, the over-familiar beauty in the natural world or the sensory vitality in a city lived in for decades.
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the refining of prefrontal networks in adulthood brings with it an improved ability to understand and to predict, and overall greater self-efficacy and self-realization. This wisdom, if it develops, can bring great peace of mind, and stability for society.
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There is a point where, in the putting together of information, a filigree of networks emerges from years of input and successive dendritic refinement. This is the point where deep knowledge is possible.
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If one lives to old old age, having not been felled by disease, some sort of final sensory and experiential slide from the world often happens. The person, progressively cut off from the world by the decline of sensory systems, seems to come to a point where there is a relinquishing of the sensate world. Thankfully this is being warded off more effectively and for longer as sensory aids improve. Fragility leads to reduced mobility, and there is a distancing from the momentum of the world.
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one day, somehow or other, I was not anticipating the dreaded staleness but instead was appreciating the rich sensate world in the present. One returns to the world of sensation–not the headlong hurtle of youth, but a richly nuanced one that you want nothing from, except to be in it.
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At the end of the day we are, even if imagining at the level of Beethoven, individual constructs of sensory-memory systems of infinite complexity. One may feel that that the experience of living is more than an unending shifting network of highly sophisticated, infinitely arborized neurons, that there is something beyond oneself, outside of memory and even imagination. The fact is that this feeling is created by neural networks that make you feel as if you are more than ‘just your brain’. This is the ultimate feat of abstraction–the representation of oneself, a consciousness of oneself as an integrated extant being in a world of other similarly wired humans.
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In any individual life, all going well, consciousness will evolve hand-in-hand with memory, and, as memory systems become more complex and integrated, so too will systems of awareness and consciousness.
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from the very start of life awareness of oneself is bound up with memory of oneself. Systems of awareness then develop from self-recognition to complex representations of oneself, usually referred to as ‘higher consciousness’. Eventually, a person will become aware of their own consciousness: this is called ‘meta-consciousness’. Meta-consciousness is, in essence, looking at yourself looking at yourself.
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What is a stream of consciousness if not a record of present interospective experience understood in the context of past experience?
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the past and the future only exist in memory, while what we call the present is really consciousness. Higher consciousness is a living process, in which there is an exchange between live-streaming systems of sensory input and memory networks.
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interoceptive sensation is first brought to the insula to be ‘mapped’ in the body–the insula will identify pain and the location of pain. From the insula the neurons go to the prefrontal brain to integrate one’s feeling states into working memory. The insula-prefrontal drive is Yeats’ ‘rag and bone shop of the heart’, containing one’s unique history, which can give voice to the most finely calibrated emotions, the muted pleasures and pains of one’s remembered, or one’s imagined, life.
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It is not surprising that the ability to reach states of heightened consciousness improves as we age, because the ability to represent all types of information develops as the prefrontal cortex develops. At this high reach of consciousness there is a heightened appreciation of the experience of being conscious–meta-consciousness. Meta-consciousness involves seeing yourself as a separate whole conscious person. In other words, we are, at our most conscious, aware of our consciousness.
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In the moment of consciousness the brain is in the process of working memory networks, and the integrative system of neurons, predominantly in the prefrontal brain, is processing the flaring inputs in the pruned lattices of learned organization to arrive at a pared-down output: the thought, the conclusion, the intuition, the prediction, the knowledge, the understanding.
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The prefrontal circuits that grow down to the amygdala lead to a growing inhibition of the amygdala output, giving a less intense amygdala hammer-gong of emotional experience and more measured feeling states. Inhibition is new learning.
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All things going well, and in the absence of early life adversity, the prefrontal neurons grow down during early adult life to inhibit amygdalar output, and an emotional equilibrium is reached. This shift allows a stable sense of self to emerge that forms the foundation for a stable personality and identity. Understanding the emotional experiences and intentions of oneself–emotional insight–and of others, improves with age and in line with prefrontal developments.
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Female starlings will go for the best singer, and the best singer in the female starling’s world is the one with the longest and most complex song. Because starlings are brilliant mimics, they learn songs from listening, building up a varied repertoire as they age. This gives the advantage to the older males, who, because of their song memory, win the females. Meanwhile, the young male starlings learn new tunes from their elders, creating melodic memories that will give them the advantage for breeding seasons to come. Reassuringly, it is not only youth and beauty, but experience and memory, that brings about romantic success.
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This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it. Jean-Paul Sartre*
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prefrontal development allows representation of complex sensory information that can then be assembled to create a coherent story of events that, if biographical, probably involve the hippocampus. Pruning and myelination of memory networks in the prefrontal areas allow this to happen, and as the networks evolve we learn to predict, to imagine and to create. We have examined emotional neurodevelopment and how a young person learns to become aware through mirroring of themself and others and to regulate their emotions through prefrontal growth, leading to some sort of equilibrium with the world. The journey to the formation of a stable way of being in the world is a life-long one that is always shifting as the present changes, as it has to, and new events and insights modify existing memory networks.
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A story will always form because human neural networks will assemble into patterns: that is what they are designed to do. But we usually go beyond this to ascribing meaning to the story. Self-narrativization best describes the process of ascribing meaning to one’s own experience and one’s life story.
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We now know that we do not have a fixed store of memory that may or may not be available for recall and that new input from the world is not simply augmenting established networks, but that there is a plastic network of connectivity between present input and memory.
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The hippocampus is engaged in putting together incoming sensory experience to create new biographical memory, but this putting together of current cell assemblies with existing prefrontal lattices will of course change the pre-existing lattices. One may be aware of the processes of working memory–thinking, actively recalling or imagining–but we are always silently processing information,
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All biographical memory is false to some degree, because of the imperative of change, the changing networks caused by ongoing events and experience, and the human drive to self-narrativize.
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Self-narrativization transforms your story into your narrative, and is what you want yourself to be and how you want others to see you. It is all, ultimately, driven by vanity. One of the most striking and attractive features of a humble person is their lack of a need to self-narrativize. The world has been exposed to some spectacular narcissists, whose vanity and sense of self-importance is equalled only by their deluded self-narrativization.
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what retinal pigment does in the eyes–transforming light energy into electrical neurotransmission.
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mitochondria themselves were probably once bacteria that became incorporated into animal cells and became subverted to the purpose of survival of the cell that engulfed it. 151 The mutated bacteria continued to have semi-independent life, nestled in the cellular machinery of every human cell.
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A lot of hard-wiring in the human brain is present, because of the demands not of the human world, but that of phylogenetic predecessors.
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While deep biological memory is humming away in the background, cultural memory is to the fore in the way we construct new memories and put it all together in order to understand the world.
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There is general agreement that the mind is the bio-cultural co-construction of two interactive systems of influences: internal genetic-biological and external material-social-cultural. The brain is a joint outcome of these two systems of inheritance.ii
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in an average life, nothing is more important to what we attend to and memorize than our osmotic relationship with socio-cultural memory.
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the dynamics of cultural memory are similar to those of individual memory–not fixed or unchanging, but in a process of being continually reconstructed by the present. It is as if there is a collective human cortical web of organization, sometimes disorganization, that is loosely consolidated but is being modified constantly by vast streams of sensory input.
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the past is not preserved but is reconstructed based on present beliefs.
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The laconic Irish language, with its relatively fewer words and subsequent greater ambiguity, is a perfect language for the pithy fairy tale.
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The stories were transmitted in this way I think because the information that they contained, transmitted from woman to girl, was too important to be distorted by subjective feeling. It is not the interpretation of the story that matters, or how one may feel, or whether something is right or wrong; it is the fact that incest and rape and murder and sexual rivalry exist and the girl needs to know this and learn to protect herself. The stories were too valuable for life and survival to be transformed by narrativization. The power of the female transmission of these stories, the raw earthiness of the non-idealized objectified female, is for me the real deep female collective memory, the dark side of the eternal Brown Bear as mother and lover.
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the beginnings of the scientific understanding of the connected brain. There were no neuroscience departments in the 1980s and few in the 1990s–all this brain knowledge is new and has happened in the blink of an eye in historical terms.
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The merging of knowledge and experience can happen because we have a multi-tiered brain memory system, where new experience is held in the plastic hippocampus, the memory maker, and gradually integrated into the less plastic, more consolidated cortex. Current experience and memory are integrated in the complicated networks of the prefrontal cortex, the storyteller. At the highest pinnacle of this complexity, memory is consciously manipulated in imagination. At this level, memory can be worked without external sensory input, and this faculty can be used to form new patterns of thinking, to imagine and create, to modify one’s understanding of the world. It is through this representative memory that we develop self-awareness, and the appreciation of others as being self-aware in the same way. Through this we come to accept the singular human state, common to everyone, of existential aloneness and inseparability from others. The appreciation of others as being mirrored humans is the neural basis for the virtue of human kindness.
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Psychiatric illnesses probably involve disruptions in integrative brain processes, in network brain function, which we are only coming to understand now through network neuroscience and connectomics.