What is memory? How important is it to my identity? Why is my short term memory getting worse as I
age? Why am I starting to remember random things from my childhood that I haven't thought about
since they happened? Along the same lines (I think), what is the current thinking on the phenomenon
of deja vu?
An enormous question which has puzzled both philosophy and science for thousands of years. From
a materialist point of view scientists, although admitting to being baffled by certain aspects, believe
that they are now nearer to solving the problem, however, they have still a long way to go to convince
most philosophers. In philosophy memory is a very important facet of philosophy of mind.
Both philosophy and science accept that the mind is daily
ed with an enormous amount of information: this information is subjected to a very critical filtering
process, links are made with already stored information and some of the new information is added to
the store, the rest is rejected. However, some scientists claim that nothing is actually rejected and any
piece of information could be recalled under the right conditions. For example, it is claimed that vital
facts have been recalled by witnesses in legal arguments when subjected to hypnosis.
Because we can know ourselves only because we can remember, we are also involved with theory of
knowledge (epistemology). When we investigate knowledge of ourselves, knowledge of our lives past
and present, we are directly involved with memory. We are daily involved with two sorts of memory,
short term (working) memory, and long term memory. Although it is common practice to identify the
two types of memory as separate activities they are constantly interacting, and are totally
interdependent. An impaired working memory means that we cannot learn anything new, and hence
cannot pass new information into the long term memory. An impaired long term memory, on the other
hand, means that the working memory is unable to retrieve information from the long term storage,
and hence we would be suffering from dementia or alzheimer.
It is very much a fact of life that our minds are constructed to form habits. Careful analysis of
everyday activity reveals the fact that we are very much dependent on habit. Further analysis
discloses that habit and long term memory have a lot in common. Constant repetition eventually
develops into habit, we progress from having to think about things to doing them automatically,
seemingly without thinking. Consider the examples of learning to ride a bicycle, to drive a car, to play
an instrument, knowing which way to turn when you leave your house to go on an errand or to work,
talking to a passenger and driving, as though two separate minds are at work, etc.. The learning
process is difficult, the working memory cannot retain much data, and only then for a short time,
hence we have to repeat things over and over again until by some process or other a memory
trapping mechanism transfers the data to long term memory. If this did not happen we would daily be
in serious trouble, every event would have to be re-thought. Every important and necessary event in
our normal everyday activity has been committed to memory; because we are so used to performing
everything automatically we fail to recognise that we are relying on memory.
The memory is very efficient and once information is established within it, unless we are beset by
some disease or accident to the brain we do not forget. Some claim that there is no such thing as a
bad memory and that more people suffer from not being able to forget things that haunt them than do
from not being able to remember. Also, how many people are unable to immediately repeat the
alphabet when called on to do so?How many people would fail to be able to count to a thousand or
more immediately?Say the nursery rhymes of their childhood? etc. Children of pre-war years and
later who learned their lessons by rote were far more efficient in mathematics, spelling, poetry,
literature, etc.. The decline came with the advent of calculators and other memory saving gadgets.
There is no doubt that constant repetition, i.e. constant pressure on short term memory, eventually
leads to transfer to long term memory. Also, as I used to tell my students, interest is the bedrock of
memory.On the first day of the new academic year I would point to the door and advise that anyone
not really interested in the subject ought to leave, as they were wasting both their own time and mine.
Having gone some way to answering your question on identity by saying that we can know ourselves
only because we can remember, consideration of what has been said about long term memory
should complete the picture. Memory ensures that we can locate ourselves in space and time. The
bigger question is, What is the self that does the locating?If the self is not the memory but something
that uses the memory, then your question about identity takes on a new meaning. Hume gave a great
deal of thought to this problem and found that he could never identify a self observing events of
memory, he was somehow just aware of memories.
Difficulties arise not with memory itself but the mechanism of recall; when we make mistakes the
memory itself is not at fault if the wrong information is recalled. Also, the memory is not at fault if we
find it difficult to recall something. As we age somehow or other, no one is quite sure how, our faculty
of recall becomes less efficient. The memories are still there but we find it more difficult to locate
them. Usually it is a slowing down condition, we need more time to recall events or names etc. It is
noticeable when an elderly person meets someone in the street whom they know well but cannot
instantly recall the name. This is not sign of a disease but a process of ageing. Dementia and
alzheimer are diseases suffered by a relatively few people and should not be confused with the
natural ageing process. Many people retain very efficient memories into very old age. The more we
use the mind and exercise the memory the more likely we are to retain our faculties to the end of our
lives, however long that may be.
I have no idea of your age, but remembering random things from childhood is not unusual as we get
older. I am not claiming that this is true in your case, but very often as a person gets older nostalgia
creeps in, they feel less to belong less to a modern world subject to values which seem less
appealing than those that were instilled into them when they were younger. Also, children are more
curious and learn more rapidly and more efficiently, memories strike home with greater impact and
stay there, suggesting again that interest is the bedrock of memory.Your experiences are proving the
point that we do not lose the memories established in long term memory, and that we are here
involved with the recall system. Unless we are concentrating on something the recall facility becomes
free ranging, and often in relaxation will wander into the long term memory and release random
events into consciousness. Older people call this day-dreaming.
With regard to deja vu science has never relinquished its notion that this is a fleeting disorientation of
the mind which happens to almost everyone during a lifetime. Scientists will never accept a mystic
explanation. However, some philosophers, and others with an orientation towards mystic events
might consider deja vu to have something to do with the continued survival of mind and the possibility
of reincarnation. Most scientists are bent on proving that mind, memory and mystic events are to do
with neuro — electricity, proteins, hormones and genes.