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.


Neurons and Short-Circuits: Solving the Brain Problem

“As long as our brain is a mystery, the universe, the reflection of the structure of the brain will also be a mystery.”

― Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Words cannot even describe the amount of difficulty this post has been. If you look in my draft folder I started 5 times. And yet, here we are. It is somewhat ironic that after 3 exams and 6 weeks with minimal sleep, that my brain can apparently no longer function to a level necessary to explain itself. Wonderful.

Story of my life with this one.

Story of my life with this one.

But seriously, I sat down, thought slowly about it, and each time began backing myself in a brain-kids corner. Which I have no idea why I refute so heavily. I’m a modest cerebellum. Don’t want to take all the credit. I’ll let my brain take the fall for that joke though. So other than lead me to make bad jokes – what does the brain do? How does it do its magic, and at what point do I feel the “mind” or whatever else you want to call it, je ne sais quoi, come in?

The Tumblr account (here) is actually hilarious... and surprisingly efficient birth control.

The Tumblr account (here) is actually hilarious… and surprisingly efficient birth control.

Let’s start from the bottom. Literally. The lower brain, keeps us alive. It regulates heart rate, breathing, reflexes. The basic, uncontrolled, unconscious actions (and yes, I know you can hold your breath, thus you’ve got control right? Ever see a 5 year old tell their mom they’re going to hold their breath until they get their way? Biology -1, small child – 0). But that’s not all – I mean even organisms with a single nerve of sorts (think worms, and amoebas) can still “live” and move, and plants are technically living even if they can’t move on their own. But things broke down for me when I started asking myself how? How does the brain control these different functions?

Well that’s relatively easy no? Neural impulses. The answer to pretty much anything in human movement and life. And I know we have different nerves for different functions and speeds. We’ve got alpha, beta, and gamma nerves depending on mylenation (affects how fast) and how long they are; we’ve got motor and sensory neurons. But what about cognition. I have learned all about how different neurons respond preferentially to different neurotransmitters, and I’ve learned about different pathways in the brain for sensory input and integration. But I honestly can’t say I’ve ever had a professor tell me “this is the cognition pathway” or even explain to me how cognition and metacognition work, just that they exist. So basically, I feel like I have some fancy vocabulary that tells me nothing about anything. Like when I learned the GRE vocabulary this summer. Other than adding some flowery language just to feel like it wasn’t a total waste of my time, I have learned nothing.

So sum up? Brain keeps us alive, receives sensory information from the world. The mind does the interpretation? I mean I know there are billions of neurons, and thus an unimaginable number of pathways, but I don’t see how any of this can account for unique thoughts. And yet experience does make tasks easier to perform and facts and mental manipulations and calculations easier. Does lend itself to the idea that cognition actually lies somewhere in the neural pathway. And after all, what’s the use of having an insanely powerful system with such limited utility that it is unable to go beyond intake?

See back in a corner I am.

I'm not sure what was so fascinating about the corner

I’m not sure what was so fascinating about the corner

Does the fact that I have not learned how exactly the brain formulates thoughts preclude the existence of such a function? To dear heartargue this would be horribly illogical. But if the brain also gets the responsibility to rational and logical thought, then what exactly does it not do?

Emotions? Well where’s the use in that? Seems kind of odd to have this beautifully organized system of cognition only to muggle it up (yes MUGGLE), with such a potentially irrational and unpredictable system of emotions. This is my best and strongest argument against the brain exclusively. Is there an evolutionary advantage to emotions? Hypothetically in some cases yes – it helps us bind together socially, thus increasing odds of survival – strength in numbers. Yet, I dare you to name one person, particularly of the female variety, who hasn’t had emotions get in the way.

You know like when people say their “head and heart disagree” or that they need to stop being so emotional about things? Either we are fooling ourselves in how perfect our brain is as a system. Well we are. My brain is barely even functional without caffeine, I was so tired today that I was having difficulty standing, when I can’t remember something I tell people I’m having a “brain fart” (no idea what that means, Google it.), and occasionally when I completely zone out mid conversation or midsentence lose my train of thought, I tell people my brain short-circuited. So yeah, either I got the lemon, or the brain factory needs to upgrade the OS.

It is very interesting that I refer to the brain with so many computer analogies, but I think that is partially because that is how I see the brain. It is a giant computer, and we are in the process of making that a literal thing. I do see the brain as this massively powerful computing device though. It receives input from the world, and can create things to a degree, or else different manifestations and forms of the input. For example, typing – you press the letters on the keyboard, but really in the digital age, how to the letters appear on your screen? Some electrical signal. Don’t ask me to explain it. I took an hour to understand a type writer when I was a child and I could clearly see pushing the button leading to the letter stamp popping up. This is too much for me to understand at this point. Quite frankly it’s too much for science to understand I think. It watches the process, watches the fMRI light up as people do tasks and acts like they know how the brain works. I can watch a car drive down the street, doesn’t mean I understand the driver. Currently all we have done is realized that the car exists and figured out how to GPS track the car.

So for me, the brain takes in all of this information, puts it together into a bundle of meaningful information, and then our mind takes over and does it’s thing, sends it’s feedback to the brain and the brain carries out the instructions. Some may argue that the frontal lobe is the site of executive functioning, it weighs the situation and consequences, constructs the hypotheticals in a mental space, and makes decisions. The scientists have also found a home for emotions – the amygdala. But it all just seems so contradictory to me – I thought this was all a product of external stimulation. The brain received information, now it’s making things up too? How do we know it isn’t making EVERYTHING up and this isn’t some elaborate and unique fairy tale or nightmare? At which point, what is acting to affect the brain? Nothing hypothetically, the brain is constructing images of itself.

brain is the mostTerrifying no?

Now you see why I insist on the brain AND the mind. The mind allows me to conceive a inner and outer world, with the concrete and factual world and the imagined and hypothetical world including an ability to shift across time, away from the here and now to what has been and what will be.

If the brain truly had it all figured out – why do we have flawed memories? Because the brain short-circuits and has coding errors? Could explains why we don’t see things or experience things in the same way? But then why, particularly in emotional situations, does the retroactive error tend to occur in our favour? Because the mind. We love ourselves, so nevermind what the world says is out there.

2 am let's talkSo end game – what do I think the brain does? Big thing, is it keeps us alive by controlling our vital functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and the reflexes. All the brain stem functions –  the things they check for to make sure we’re still alive. I think it receives information from the outside world and integrates it into a meaningful image. I think that our brain can react to our surroundings to create action, it’s not totally passive, simply accepting information and leaving it to higher powers to do something with that information. So brain’s primary roles: keep us living, take information in, do something when our mind doesn’t need to or cannot attend to the information.

So I seem to have finally resolved this whole what does the mind do, but two problems continue to thwart me:

  1. How does the brain do it? How does the brain take the information from the outside world and convert it into a mental image?
  2. Where do the generalities lie? Do both the brain and mind have a set of generalities and predictive schemas that guide our lives? Is that why we sometimes feel conflicted? Why we have the gut instinct that sometimes makes no sense?
  3. In which system does consciousness lie?
  4. Does the brain tell the mind what’s going on or does the mind tell the brain?

This really is the theme of my education here. The answer to one question is another 20 questions.

Basically, an exercise in frustration.

Then again they say curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back.


“Wit and puns aren’t just decor in the mind; they’re essential signs that the mind knows it’s on, recognizes its own software, can spot the bugs in its own program.”

― Adam Gopnik

Uncontrollably, Emotionally, Human


“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious – the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

― Albert Einstein

There is a emotion center labelled in the brain. According to science, all emotion originates or is processed in the amygdala. Though thinking back, I have no idea whether the emotions are caused by the amygdala or affect it. Which roots back to the whole idea of perceptions – are they created by the brain or do they create brain activity by stimulating specific neural pathways. This depends on your philosophical viewpoint in a sense. On one hand you could believe that we should doubt our very existence, in which case, perceptual experiences are the result of our brain activity – our brain creates our experiences. Of course you could take it a step further and say we don’t even have a brain and we cannot know we exist in any form. Which quite frankly has always struck me as senseless. On the other hand, you could argue that we developed sophisticated sensory systems to be able to detect stimuli, we have studied these stimuli extensively, and the brain react to the stimuli. Which fits more with my practical side, but leave me with the problem of how does the brain construct the mental  images? I am still working on that one, hopefully I will have an answer to that, and in general the brain question (i.e. What does the brain do?) next week. For now, I shall return to the concept of emotions.

Emotions are a pretty busy and varied area of psychology so allow me to boil down the key issues with emotions as I see them:

  1. Science has located the biological center but cannot explain the mechanism
  2. Science tries to remove emotions from science, but this is essentially impossible – emotions are a part of us. I can’t stop my emotions any more effectively that I can stop breathing.
  3. Emotions impact everything we do – have you ever heard noticed how your emotions colour EVERYTHING! The same event, missing the bus is a totally different thing if you’re upset because you failed a midterm versus if you got a good night’s rest and are looking forward to a date.
  4. We are not always experts at emotions, they’re not always apparent.
  5. Emotions are either part of consciousness or born out of consciousness.

Sitting on the bus Tuesday night, I looked around and realized everyone was likely thinking something. Or so my female mind tells me (according to comedians it is actually possible for men to not be thinking ANYTHING). So everyone on the bus was thinking something. In my experience, everything to some degree has an evaluative component.

In mediating on emotions I came to a slow and peaceful realization of the distinction between the public and private emotions. We have the expression “wearing your heart on your sleeve.” Meaning you make no attempt or are unable to conceal your emotions. I argue this is part of a more general expressiveness. People show the really powerful emotions, or they usually do – and which we see them naming them, we have no difficulty naming them. But what about mixed emotions? We do not always feel one thing.

Thankfully there was no one this tired. I am alarmingly close.

Thankfully there was no one this tired. I am alarmingly close.

Sitting on the bus, I can see people who are tired, but that, beyond, the concept of psychache,  is not really an emotion. I am sure they were thinking about things, feeling things under the surface, but superficially all I could see was the tiredness. Humans are capable of an unimaginable array of emotions, science has attempted to find a set of “core” emotions, basic things like anger, sadness, happiness, surprise. But we don’t always have these simple emotions that can be neatly packaged up. Sometimes our “head and our heart disagree” (i.e. our logical and rational thought system, wherever that is, and our emotions are telling us to do different things). And then things get messy. This is essentially why science tries to eliminate these things. Ironically, at least here in North America, we talk about how couples (particularly actors) “have great chemistry.” Somewhere Neils Bohr just turned over in his grave.

It’s the emotions that complicate the science of psychology. This boils down to an overarching experience or issue of things being made more complicated than they need to be and more simple than they can be. We can’t remove emotions from our experiences, they’re the very thing that taint our perception. So we try to remove emotions, be completely unbiased, my psych profs have repeatedly told me that we try to be interested in the results either way, out of scientific curiosity. Really, I don’t think that’s possible, yes some experiments may actually be interesting for interest sake, but we develop hypothesis – mini-theories of sorts that state what we are expecting to happen. To have those expectations invalidated is useful in allowing us to grow and learn, but at the same token, it sucks. It sucks to be wrong. And we get sad, or frustrated, disappointed, maybe even angry. Our hope that we are right, may guide our interpretations, our desire to avoid the negative emotions could affect how we interpret things. At the same time, we do not live in a vacuum – in the background, beyond the experiment is our lives. The things that really matter to us as individuals. We may be sad because of a break-up or dreading a visit from the in-laws (for the record, I have never had an awful boyfriend’s family experience, I’m starting to wonder why everyone dreads the in-laws) – and that affects how they carry out the experiment or interpret the results. It’s the same in daily life – like I mentioned before – say you just failed a midterm, and someone steps on your foot on the bus, you are going to react differently than if you just found out you aced the midterm.

So to say that science can remove emotions is laughable – you can’t – it is part of our consciousness. Are they consciousness? Well I guess that requires an understanding of consciousness, which could be an entire post on it’s own – but let’s do the SparkNotes version.

Consciousness=awareness of your existence
Unconsciousness=existing without awareness

People sometimes have talked about unconscious emotions – and I’ve read studies that demonstrate implicit feelings that individuals are unaware they’re feeling – racist reactions are a big one – i.e. science has supposedly proven that even if explicitly you state you are not racist, and your general behaviour agrees with that, there are subtle indicators of your us-them bias. Which is interesting, though at this point we may be stretching too far in our generalizations.

To what degree is the unconscious a valid indicator of someone’s emotions? To what degree do those “unconscious motives/emotions” guide our behaviour? This is the bedrock of the problem of whether emotions are consciousness or merely a part of consciousness. If they are our consciousness then should we not be able to label them all the time? Should emotions not guide everything? In class I argued, almost on a whim, on the basis that emotions affect everything, that emotions are consciousness. Sitting back and thinking about it though, emotions don’t necessarily affect everything. Motivation plays a huge part. Some may argue that this is just another more complex emotion, but I don’t think so. Emotions impact motivation potentially. But I don’t think that emotions are necessarily a part of everything, at least not on a conscious level. When I wait to cross the street, it is not because I fear getting hit by a car (which is technically valid), it is because that is social norm. When I climb the stairs (I might wish I had taken the elevator),  I am not feeling any emotion generally, at least not related to climbing the stairs.

After writing this, on a later bus ride I realized – was I perhaps unable to read the emotions of people on the bus because there were none? Is that possible? If emotions are to be consciousness, then they must always be present, we must be unable to evaluate or think without an associated emotion. But is exhaustion an emotion or a state of physical or mental existence?

I vacuumed Saturday morning, I was distracted thinking about other things I was going to do, but did I have an emotion or some sort of appraisal of vacuuming? No. I was simply doing something, yet I was conscious of that. Neutrality isn’t really an emotion. At the same background thoughts of future plans or past events may also be generating emotions that are completely unrelated. What is interesting and forms a sticking point for me, is how I may be unaware of emotions, I may even not be feeling anything – but when someone asks me how I am feeling, I can tell them…usually. Does this mean that emotions are part of the unconscious, the background noise of our lives that can be brought forward into consciousness? Or do we actually include emotions in all areas of our lives, we just don’t think of them as emotions because we do not have the language to articulate the emotions? Are thoughts as I watch people on the bus emotions, appraisals, or simply thoughts?

So emotions aren’t everything, motivations and social norms also play a role (though they too may be considered variations of emotional states), but emotions have the potential to impact everything.

In meditating on science and emotions and decision making an interesting concept became clear. We try to remove emotions when we make decisions or guide our behaviour because they can be rash, they are volatile and out of our control (much like our own consciousness – we can choose to ignore things, but this requires some degree of consciousness). Jury, business, and medical decisions are all supposed to be based on fact. Psychologists are expected to be completely unbiased, empathic, but not emotionally involved. We pretend that this is the way things actually are because if we accept that emotions can be illogical, AND we accept that they CANNOT be eliminated  from decisions, then our reasoning is not actually logical, and we are no longer wise and rational beings. We become a slave to the illogical, to the chaos of our minds. And yet when an individual completely lacks emotions, or the ability to show/react to emotions, like Dexter, we pathologize it. Something just isn’t right.

Basically? We want to have our cake and eat it too.

What is interesting to me is how different cultures deal with emotions and show them, and how that affects our understanding. For example, the Japanese are known for their lack of emotional expression (or at least traditionally). To say you’re depressed or display anger publicly is disapproved. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on eating disorders for various papers and proposals, and what strikes me is how the Japanese have been found to display a non-fat-phobic version of anorexia nervosa. I reference this to EDs in children, a growing area of research, as children are largely considered to be unable to articulate and understand their own emotional experiences, which could explain the atypical presentation in Japanese individuals – if emotional displays are not appropriate, like children, they may lack the fat phobic trait either because the expression may be foreign to them, or because culturally expression of such individual desires may be inappropriate.

How we experience and display emotions are partially culturally derived, but also inherently variant and potentially contradictory. For example, outside of NY, even if you are experiencing heart-wrenching pain, crying on public transit is generally bizarre. So maybe you put on a mask of calm, maybe even try some good ol’ fashioned opposite action and smile. Either way, public transportation is a no-cry zone. So emotions, in my opinion, are somewhat inevitable, displaying them is optional.

So scientists pretend to be unbiased, I don’t think that’s really possible. What is possible, is controlling your actions, somewhat. So science is essentially alogical because of the inductive reasoning, and illogical because it is tainted by emotions, and essentially science then becomes an exercise is how convincing you are. Not truly on how convincing the evidence is. I have read articles where the author talks up the results and then you examine yourself, and they’re significant, but only statistically so, in real life it is hardly worth any pomp and circumstance.

What about the really powerful emotions? Sometimes, you just feel too much – they become uncontrollable.

So what does this say about emotions?

As I’ve said before, emotions cannot be explained by the brain’s activities, I refuse to accept that emotions can truly be simply a neurochemical cocktail. I see emotions as both uncontrollable – you can’t control love, you can’t help but feel sad when someone you love dies – and at the same time incredibly malleable – which is the very principle behind cognitive behavioural therapies. But then what are emotions, scientists really hate the intangible, so I feel like I should come up with some sort of hypothesis that will eventually be proven wrong. I propose that this is essentially no different that perception to a degree. 

There is a chicken and the egg debate in both, and neither can pinpoint exactly how those neural signals are converted back into mental images of the sensory world. Maybe the difference with emotions is the evaluative component but also the fact that emotions are percepts of the unobservable.

I still have a long way to go in understanding emotions, a prelude to understanding my own emotions I suppose, but what is incredibly fascinating to me is that they are always changing. I think our emotions hold the power to alter the connections in our brains, to bias our perceptions and interpretations – a sort of stimulus acting on the brain from within whatever source of being defines that which science has yet to explain.

The science kids are confident that we only say science can’t explain things because it  hasn’t developed the technology to do so – but how can you boil something so potentially irrational and volatile down to a complex, but logically organized sequence of firing neurons and neurotransmitter releases? I don’t think science can or should explain emotions, but I still don’t agree that the reactions can be so instantaneous that we can experience the flashes of emotion. Science has done some pretty cool stuff, but please science – don’t take away the magic of love.

What do you think? Has science already explained the emotions? Will it? Should it?

Also, not a huge fan of making emotions a scientific theory – but this is pretty cool (don’t ask me why happiness is completely isolated)

emotions web

“I think there is something beautiful in reveling in sadness. The proof is how beautiful sad songs can be. So I don’t think being sad is to be avoided. It’s apathy and boredom you want to avoid. But feeling anything is good, I think. Maybe that’s sadistic of me.”

― Joseph Gordon-Levitt