Memory, Attention, Consciousness

I’ve just begun reading The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin. I’ve already realized that I should have read this book some time ago, and it is already clear that I am going to recommend it. Usually I do not recommend books until I’ve completed reading them, but I am making an exception in this case. It is already clear that much of the advice will involve transactive memory. Before proceeding with advice providing posts, I feel compelled to write a post on memory, attention, and consciousness. These three topics are central to the healthymemory blog, and although Levitin does not necessarily provide new information, I think that his treatment of these topics deserve special consideration.

Here is how Levitin begins Chapter 2 on How Memory and Attention work, “We live in a world of illusions. We think we are aware of everything going around us. We look out and see an uninterrupted picture of the visual world, composed of thousands of little detailed images. We may know that each of us has a blind spot, but we go on blissfully unaware of where it actually is because our occipital cortex does such a good job of filling in the missing information and hence hiding it from us.

“We attend to objects in the environment partly based on our will (we choose to pay attention to some things), partly based on an alert system that monitors our world for danger, and partly based on our brain’s own vagaries. Our brains come preconfigured to create categories and classifications of things automatically and without our conscious intervention. When the systems we’re trying to set up are in collision with the way our brain automatically categorizes things, we end up losing things, missing appointments, or forgetting to do things we needed to do.”

Regular readers of the healthymemory blog should know that memory is not a passive storage system for data. Rather it is dynamic, guiding our perception, helping us to deal with the present and project into the future. Fundamentally it is a machine for time travel. It is not static, but constantly changing, with the sometimes unfortunate consequent in our being highly confident of faulty recollections. Memories are the product of assemblies of neurons firing. New information, learning, is the result of new cell assemblies being formed. Neurons are living cells that can connect to each other, and they can connect to each other in trillions of different ways. The number of possible brain states that each of us can have is so large that it exceeds the number of known particles in the universe. (I once asked a physicist how they computed this number of known particles and he told me. I would pass this on to you had I not forgotten his answer.)

Attention is critical as there is way too much information to process. So we need to select the information to which we want to attend. Sometimes this selection process itself demands.substantial attention. Moreover, switching attention requires attention, which only exacerbates attentional limitations when multitasking.

Consciousness has been explained as the conversation among these neurons. Levitin has offered the explanation that there are multiple different cell assemblies active at one time. Consciousness is the result of the selection of one of these cell assemblies. In other words, there are multiple trains of thought, and we must choose one of them to ride.

A critical question is how to employ our limited consciousness effectively. One way is the practice of mindfulness meditation to try to achieve a Zen-like focus of living in the moment. This can be accomplished through a regular meditation regimen. However, we should not neglect the short time application of this mindfulness. We need to apply this Zen-like focus when putting things down (your keys, important items), so you’ll remember where you put them. Also do not neglect uses of transactive memory and put notes in planners, on calendars, or in your electronic device so you’re sure you’ll be able to access them.


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