The Swift Injustice of Human Memory

So I have debated this for many months. Memory has always fascinated me. It’s so fallible and yet so crucial to our everyday lives. So crucial that we take it for granted and assume it to be correct.
This has been a theme to a lot of my understanding of how flawed science and our general logic capabilities, but it wasn’t until my grandfather’s second wife developed a dementia that I realized just how tragic this entire scenario is.
In this I have realized four “truths.”

When I went to New York this summer I took well over 1500 photos. I am pretty sure my mom was contemplating murder by the end of it, but I had to capture every moment in bytes. When I got home and realized how many photos I had taken I was shocked, it’s a lot to go through an pare down for sure. What surprised me was that I realized I had been taking the photos not as much so that I could post these photos online for all my friends to see what a fabulous time I had, but because I wanted to remember those moments. Like I was expecting in that moment to forget. Aware that one day I would be unable to recall everything we did and the colour of the sky as I ran in Central Park for the first time. The unfortunate part, I soon realized, is that the pictures, my memory, or both failed to do the moments justice. This is the first truth – we live expecting to forget, and thus we live constantly trying to grasp the past. And then the second truth hits – we lost the moment the instant we begin to reflect on its existence. Never again will you be able to perfectly recapture in any form that moment.

Photo number #1137

Photo number #1137

I am a little young to be worried about lost memories, but our brain, as much as we are told is virtually limitless in capacity, is limited by our ability to retrieve what is stored. Like losing the key. And that is tragic. I have been very fortunate to have some amazing experiences in my life. I have traveled, I have met some amazing people, I have eaten some amazing things, but somewhere in the jumble of hectic mornings running out the door we lose a chunk of our lives – we only get to keep the very best and the very worst moments. But sometimes the small moments are the best moments, or at the very least, they are the moments that tell the world who we are, what we want, and what we fear.
What I want most to remember, is the taste of the first time I had penne alla vodka at a restaurant in Mont-Tremblant. I want to remember the feeling cuddling against my boyfriend watching TV – the way his arms curved around me, making me feel safe. I want to remember all the afternoons playing “Little Skunker” with my grandmother. Instead, I have the third truth – We only get a vague recollection of the small moments that add up to who we are. As time goes on the memories get thinner and thinner.

As mentioned, my grandfather’s wife (step-grandmother? Is that a thing?) has been diagnosed with a dementia. I have studied it in school many times, even considered dementias as a potential area I would like to do my graduate studies in, but it doesn’t feel the same when it’s no longer a dry passage in your textbook or 2 hours in a lecture and 3 questions on the final. And now we come to the final, and most painful truth in memory – our memories help us to define who we are. I am a runner, I am a psych major, I am a daughter, aunt, sister, and girlfriend, I have a best friend with amazing taste in wine, I have a friend with an infectious laugh and a love of Disney, and I have a friend I have known since birth. I have accomplished some pretty badass stuff in my life, if I may toot my own horn so to speak. To forget how amazing I have grown to be. To forget all the things in my life that make me happy, heck to forget how I like my coffee and have to suffer through the experimentation again – that makes me sad.

Dementias show you just how tragic memory is. How apparently flawed the evolutionary system is. We have this massively powerful machine capable of remembering almost anything – it’s a large part of what has enabled us to have complex social relationships. Yet, your brain can deteriorate. This is not a unique thing, all the other organs can break down, but, unlike any other organ that can break down, when your brain deteriorates, it takes pieces of you with it. I have never strongly cleaved to the idea that the brain is responsible for “me-ness” – I have struggled to accept this reductionist argument, but perhaps in dementia I can see things a bit more clearly. My grandfather will have to watch as the woman he loves slowly forgets their life together and who she even is. And that is the most painful moment I think – having someone right there, they are still alive and breathing but merely a shell of who they were – alive but dead in a sense.

While I do not have the training to even begin to identify where consciousness is in the brain, perhaps I don’t need it. I wrote several months back that consciousness might be where you-ness lies, where the seat of our being independent of the brain can be located. But I seem to have trapped myself in a corner again, because it seems that as the brain and its memory deteriorates, so too does the self. So perhaps consciousness is the seat of the self, but perhaps it is not alone. Perhaps mind-body dualism had a point – the two interact to create a self that cannot survive without the other.

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The Human Mind: Unfiltered and Infinite

So a few nights ago I was watching TED talks before bed (#nerdlife) and there was a really interesting talk by  Ray Kurzweil who talked about the evolution of the human brain. In his talk he talked about how as Google moves towards more and more intelligent searching and our technologies for imaging the brain become more and more advanced, we will move towards adding these neurotechnologies to our brain so that one day we will truly have an infinite source of knowledge by inserting nanobots into our brain that connect to a cloud service.

Ultimate point – we will put Google in our brain.

And Google will learn to understand what webpages are saying. So when we ask Google it won’t bring up search results, it will have read and can deliver responses to complex questions (it can already tell you the answers to a large number of simple questions, and yet can’t tell me why the chicken crossed the road).

And I thought oh good God.
I mean can we just go back to Google – who already knows far too much about my existence thanks to my laziness with telling it not to track me – being in my brain and possibly searching based on my thoughts.
My mind will be Google’s.
Google already owns my digital data. It’s like the Miranda Rights of the internet. “Anything you search or post can be used to sell things to you. If you do not want us to do this, too bad. Do you understand these rights?”
But Google may one day have access to my subconscious thoughts?! Google will own my consciousness. Which means Google will own me?
Remind me to opt out of this nanobot thing. I would rather be the dumb old lady.

But this all got me thinking about what this means for the human species.

Google was added to the dictionary in 2006. True Story. It replaced a previous definition from 1907 that had something to do with cricket (the sport not the insect)...

Google was added to the dictionary in 2006. True Story. It replaced a previous definition from 1907 that had something to do with cricket (the sport not the insect)…

The big thing for me is that it already kind of bothers me, is that we live in a “Google it” world. And in full disclosure of my hypocrisy, I was overjoyed when they updated Google Now so that Google checked for my responses. (Hallelujah I don’t have to hit send anymore when I tell Google to text people! She ASKS me if I want to send the message and then turns the mike back on.) When my mom asks me what she should wear, I ask Google what the weather is. She commented “I wonder if it’ll be nice in Ottawa this weekend…” and I asked Google. Before I leave the house, Google tells me how long it will take to get to work. Google knows my habits, my appointments, my interests and concerns. And it’s terrifying.

But back to the issues at hand:

  1. To be useful, Google needs to know our needs. Like how Google noticed that I had a recurring appointment every Tuesday and started automatically giving me departure times and directions. So Google needs full access. It needs to know everything about us to know what we would need. If Google is in our brain, how do we clear browser history?
    If Google knows everything about our existence, then the access to our thoughts thing that I feared a few weeks ago when I talked about Mark Zuckerburg’s outrageous claim that one day our thoughts would be uploaded to Facebook, might actually be something we should be concerned about
  2. If we all have access to this vast array of knowledge – what does this mean about experts and intelligence tests? No one likes a know-it-all. And knowing and understanding are two vastly different concepts.

So Issue #1A: By wanting to know it all, are we essentially exposing every fiber of our existence to the world? Are we uploading our private thoughts to the internet in a quest for unlimited knowledge and smooth, hands-free access to the knowledge contained in the internet?

Issue #1B: We’re creepy enough with the internet as is… I think this may allow us to hit creepy level 1000. What happened to getting to know someone the old fashioned way?

Issue #2: Are we going to be smarter? Or dumber with more declarative/factual knowledge?

Potential bonus: If Google indeed monitors our consciousness, perhaps this technology could be used to flag individuals in need of mental health aid – for example, if Google noticed cognitive markers for an eating disorder or noticed that you were suicidal, perhaps Google could connect you to services or at least make recommendations. But this may not be enough – telling someone they have depression won’t make them get help, so at what point does Google become responsible for safeguarding our lives and sanity, and at what point is it reasonable to breach the privacy of the human mind?

But I mean the real question on everyone’s mind I’m sure (no pun intended) is will this be like smart phones and we’ll just use these nanobots to search more pictures of cats. Pictures that can be uploaded directly to our visual cortex?

the truth right there.

the truth right there.

Dreaming of Reality: The Ultimate Question of Our Consciousness

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

Let’s take a trip on over to REM land – a.k.a where dreams are made. Wait no that’s Walt Disney World. Ok I’ll stop with the bad psych puns. Point is – during REM sleep we are typically paralyzed in a sense – our brain shuts off our muscles so we don’t act out our dreams and we just chill there in dream land. What’s interesting though is how the brain lights up/waves increase to the point where you might think the person is awake. Hence the whole dreaming thing.

What is truly interesting is how the brain gets the hippocampus (one of the major structures involved in memory) and the sensory cortices involved. It’s why we dream about things we’ve seen before or have been thinking about. For example, I keep dreaming about being accepted or rejected from grad school, or about running code for my thesis, and recently after going on a Hunger Games binge, I started dreaming about being in the arena. This all happens and seems incredibly real – we see it happening, despite the fact that our eyes are closed and we have no visual input. And MRIs show that indeed our visual cortex is active.

While there's no comparison in this shot for our brain when we are awake - the brighter colours indicate more activity, notice how much more active the brain in REM sleep is compared to non-REM source.

While there’s no comparison in this shot for our brain when we are awake – the brighter colours indicate more activity, notice how much more active the brain in REM sleep is compared to non-REM

We get some interesting stuff out of this scenario, most of which strengthens the constructivist arguments:

  1. If we are able to produce visual and auditory experiences independent of environmental stimuli, then how can we know that we are not constantly doing this? If  in dream land we can construct a new reality, then how do we know for sure which is reality and which is dream, or if there is any difference between the two? We can see that our brain reacts in the same way, so who’s to say it’s not the same?

    Notice that outside of muscle activity - the brain waves are suspiciously similar? EOG=Eye movements,s EEG=brain activity, EMG=muscle activity Source.

    Notice that outside of muscle activity – the brain waves are suspiciously similar?
    EOG=Eye movements,s EEG=brain activity, EMG=muscle activity
    Source.

  2. If we can do this in dreamland, we could be doing it in the “real world.” The only criteria most apply to distinguish the two is that we “wake up” in bed, or that it just seemed too crazy, too out of the pattern of our other experiences, too unexpected. We use our own derived logic to infer what is fact and fiction. Our brain, the same brain that we willingly acknowledge can create extremely vivid images without stimulation, the brain that can at least temporarily convince us that it’s creations are real; that deceiving mass of neurons, is the same mass of cells responsible for letting us know, what is real and what isn’t.
  3. Jump on the crazy train, grab some Freudian literature, and hold on tight, because things are about to get really interesting. So some of our dreams elicit such strong emotions, such incredible fear, powerful joy – what if “reality” is a Freudian defense mechanism? What if we’re looking at things in reverse, and our brain constructs this different world for us to escape to? Just a thought, and I mean I think the “real” world is sufficiently crappy at times, but still…what if…?
  4. These imaginary worlds can have a real impact on us emotionally and behaviourally. Have you ever woken up crying after dreaming something really awful, like your significant other dumped you, or someone died? Despite the fact that we wake up and marvel at what a strange or terrifying dream that was, for that brief period, we truly believed that to be reality. And that made us feel emotions. In some cases people even modify their behaviour based on some “premonition” from their dreams. And I say this not to make these individuals feel foolish, or because I think they are foolish – I raise it only to point out the effects something we have labelled as “not real” can have on our “reality.”

plasticity

Owing to neural plasticity* the brain can actually take over the areas typically assigned to one task and reassign them when it realizes the area isn’t being used for its original purpose.

So our brain can reassign, rework, things, so that sound activates visual cortex – but then what does this say about the dreams of blind individuals?

source.

As I realize most of my curiosity  at this point comes from my ignorance rather than the ignorance of the field, I did what I do best – I opened TED talks and Google Scholar and set to work finding the cold hard facts.
Turns out that results are a little mixed.
It partially depends on age of vision loss – after about 5-7 your dreams would still have visual content, but your images will not have updated (e.g. mom will always look the same age). Before that point, results are a little mixed, but some research does indicate that  your dreams may still have some visual components (
Bértolo, 2005). This was demonstrated through brain activity scans and asking participants who were congenitally blind to describe and draw their dreams. Which they could do. They could still perform these visual tasks, despite having never been able to see in the traditional sense.

Much of this research has been based in proving that there is a distinction between visualization and visual imagery. You know – sorting out the hard problem one sensory modality at a time. It has been hypothesized that perhaps the brain uses the other inputs to create a visual representation in the absence of the actual image. So their dreams didn’t actually contain visual components, but through integration of auditory and tactile experiences, a visual depiction could be generated. They don’t see in their dreams (which would have been incredibly cool), but they create a visual experience. What this explanation is essentially saying is that we can use our other senses to create a new sense that we cannot experience in a traditional way.

What is incredible is that it’s not just visually impaired individuals that do this – we do it in our every day life without realizing and appreciating the power of the human brain. Close your eyes and imagine pouring a bowl of cereal. No problem right? Imagine, how you would go about applying for a new job, or running up your street to catch a bus. We can do that with ease. Thanks to our big beautiful frontal cortex, we have the ability to envision things that have never happened – create what has never been, or what has been in the past, or what someone else has experienced, or what may be, or some combination of these possibilities. It’s fascinating. We are the masters of our world. Despite lack of input from one sense, we can potentially create it from other inputs. Our brain can create something that isn’t there, perhaps from memory, or random firing of circuits at the wrong time or of no longer used circuits, which may explain both phantom limbs and hallucinations.
Yes this also opens the door to the idea that nothing is real, but quite frankly, that door was always open, we just often try to ignore it. I say embrace it. Ignoring your vegetables as a child never made them go away.

So sitting back, this entire thing, as I’ve mentioned before – can be both terrifying and exhilarating. Yes, we might be alone, and yes we might be making it all up, but this also gives us incredible power to change the way we view the world. Change how we think and change our consciousness. Which has been of great interest to me in research terms – understanding how we look at the world and how we put it all together and how that affects everything – how we conceive of mental illness, and life scripts, and how we treat physical and cognitive impairments. How does how we think affect how we do things and think about things and have we got it right? I know, I’m being a psych major again. I’ve thought about this way too much maybe, but it’s fascinating, how can you not think about this?!

So maybe I’ve over-thought it, put a little too much power into the wrong hands, but I think that dreams are fascinating. Not in the Freudian sense where they say something about your unconscious processes, but in a conscious sort of way, in a how do dreams and the brain activity interact and what does this say about our experiences of reality.

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”

― John Lennon

*A fascinating phenomenon in which the brain actually rewires itself, typically following some sort of nerve or brain damage, but this is the principle behind such programs as Luminosity, and is one of the most fascinating areas of neuroscience in my opinion – look it up. No seriously, I’ll wait.
Also – WATCH THIS VIDEO – My mind has been blown. This is so incredibly exciting!