The idea that memory is stored in the brain is a natural one, and one that appears to be supported by neuroscience…over and over…in different ways. It might seem to a casual observer like myself that memory research itself suffers from memory trouble, as each new major breakthrough in research seems to be unrelated to the previous breakthroughs.
“researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have discovered by watching live neurons that the AMPA receptor goes where it needs to be with the help of the 4.1N protein*, without which long term memories are not formed.” 6/10/2009
“By showing for the first time that myosin II** acts as the principal organizer of memory formation, we are that much closer to identifying the signaling pathways that activate this motor protein in the brain” 8/26/2010
“What they found was MAPK and PKA† coordinate their activity both spatially and temporally in the formation of memories.” 10/15/2012
This isn’t my argument, but I think it gives us a clue that this area of brain research not only is well financed, but it tends to produce sensational headlines. People want to know what memory is, and neuroscientists are motivated to want to tell them.
It is interesting that the mechanisms implicated above are not strictly involved in memory production, rather they are proteins found all over the body, doing different things.
*membrane-cytoskeletal protein 4.1N is involved in the process of cell adhesion, migration and invasion of breast cancer cells
**Myosin II (also known as conventional myosin) is the myosin type responsible for producing muscle contraction in muscle cells.
† “…regulation of renal tubular transport of organic anions and cations involves a common MAPK and PKA pathway”
While I have no doubt in the veracity of the specific claims made in the studies - that synaptic plasticity or stimulation recall is directly correlated with this or that substance/activity, the interpretation of these factors in memory itself is less of a foregone conclusion for me.
Wired from 2/17/12 sums up the popular interpretation of our time:
“Every memory begins as a changed set of connections among cells in the brain. If you happen to remember this moment—the content of this sentence—it’s because a network of neurons has been altered, woven more tightly together within a vast electrical fabric. This linkage is literal: For a memory to exist, these scattered cells must become more sensitive to the activity of the others, so that if one cell fires, the rest of the circuit lights up as well. Scientists refer to this process as long-term potentiation, and it involves an intricate cascade of gene activations and protein synthesis that makes it easier for these neurons to pass along their electrical excitement.”
This is a compelling way to understand it, but, like so many of our contemporary models, it does not address the hard problem or explanatory gap of consciousness, and therefore conflates recall or access to memories with the storage of memories themselves. This is important because while nobody can dispute that the brain’s health dictates our capacity to recall memories, the assumption that memories are physically stored within the tissue of the brain eliminates the possibility for an authentic realism of human events.
Locally stored memories means that our lives are a purely solipsistic simulation of biochemical data, leaving everything which we find significant, including significance itself, a metaphysical afterthought - unexplained and unwelcome in the schemas of evolutionary biology and neuroscience. In my view, there is no possibility for any such conscious narrative participation experience to arise in such a system, as all functions could and would be better served as unconscious scripted processes, such as the way digestive or immune system activity is presented to us; without personal sensorimotor interaction.
Recent studies have supported what investigators working with eye witnesses have already known:
“Each time you reconstruct an event, you make new inferences,” says McFarland. “Your mood may change, and with each remembrance, you change the memory a little bit. Let’s say you reconstruct a memory 10 times. Each time you call up a clear image of it in your mind. You can actually see yourself in your own current ‘movie’ of that event. And it takes on as much reality as something that actually happened yesterday.” - source
What seems curious to me, however, is that in articles about superior autobiographical memory, none of these memory mechanisms are mentioned.
Both the temporal lobe and the caudate nucleus were found to be enlarged. The hippocampus, located in the medial temporal lobe, is involved in the encoding of declarative memory (memory for facts and events), while the temporal cortex is involved in the storage of such memory. - Hyperthymesia wiki
Having a larger temporal cortex could be a symptom of deeper neurological differences, but for people who in some cases can clearly and accurately remember practically every day of their lives without significant distortion, it would seem that is not enough. Such a perfect memory would seem to be based on a completely different neural mechanism for storage and access of memory.
Why, for instance, does the continuous process of re-forming memory not affect our memory of things like how arithmetic works. Even though we might access a simple arithmetic function like adding 20% tips to a restaurant check several time a week, that process doesn’t seem to cause a drift in our memory as it would for an eye witness remembering a face. We don’t say ‘No, I am certain that 20% of $10.00 is $3.75.’ Maybe that does happen in some cases, but even so, it is not part of the scope of our ordinary recalled memory drift.
In the more exotic realms of consciousness speculation, ideas such as extended mind and morphic resonance, panpsychism, etc, memory is conceived of as nonlocal or non-physical, a consciousness field perhaps, to which the brain tunes into, perhaps caching local addresses. As crazy as that may sound to some people, I think that it is closer to the truth. In fact, if we model this field as a non-spatial firmament of universal self-knowing, the whole picture can be turned inside out so that the brain is more like the memory and what some call the Akashic records is the cosmological brain.
Such a brain or living library arises not as a formation in the world, but as the default framework for all of the experiences which have ever occurred simply because there is nowhere else for them to be and no mechanism which can delete them. We can get a sense of this in our intuition that things that have really happened can never un-happen, even if they are forgotten. This is really contrary to a universe of solipsistic memory simulations in closed circuit brains.
What happens to your life then when you forget it, or when you die? If the Ashashic scenario is correct, then I would expect that all that happens is that our individual human experience is no longer extended into public spacetime. It isn’t here and now, but rather than being nowhere, it is still where it always has been, as part of the there and then - the everythingness which insists through every somethingness that exists. Maybe the brain doesn’t remember, it just recalls what we can’t forget.