Brain, Mind, Memory

These are three terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, but each has distinctive meanings.  The term brain certainly has the most prestige,  Someone who is known as a researcher of the brain has more prestige that someone who is known for studying the mind or memory.  The study of the brain, neuroscience, is regarded as hard science, whereas the study of either the mind or memory is regarded as soft science.

The adult brain weighs about three pounds, has the consistency of firm jelly, and has a wrinkled performance (deep valleys carving a puffy landscape).  There are an average of 86 billion neurons in the adult male brain.  These neurons are connected by about fifty trillion synapses.  Research is underway to map the brain.  The complete mapping of the brain would be an enormous achievement for anatomy.  But apart from anatomy, what would it tell us?  If we had a detailed understanding of how the brain worked, we would have important information, but we would not understand what the brain does.

The primary accomplishment of the brain is that it provides the physiological substrate of the mind.  We are aware of the conscious component of the mind, consciousness.  But most of the mind lies below the level of consciousness.   It is constantly working, even when we are asleep, although we remain unaware of what it is doing.  It is the mind that is of primary interest.  David Eagleman titled his book, “The Brain:  The Story of You.”  Eagleman is an neuroscientist and can title the book how he likes.  I am a psychologist and I would prefer “The Mind:  The Story of You.”  Of course, the brain is important as it constitutes the physiological substrate for the mind.

I believe that memory is thought of by most people as a place where information is stored.  Usually the complaint is that their memory is poor because they forget things.  Memory is central to the mind and to cognitive processing.  Remember that in the visual system there are ten times as many neural pathways going down from the brain as their are pathways proceeding up from the eyes.  Memory is involved in the processing of all incoming information.  This provides for the rapid processing of information, but it also leaves us vulnerable to our many biases and preconceptions.

Memory is involved in more than retrieval of information from the past.  It is a device for time travel where possible futures, dangers, and opportunities can be imagined.  Perception is never immediate.  Incoming data is first stored in a very short term store (hundreds of milliseconds in the iconic storage of visual memory), then a selective portion of this information is processed into working memory where it becomes consciousness.  Whether the information is stored so that it can be remembered is largely a function of how much and how effectively attention has been applied to the information.  Once stored, there is a distinction between memory that is available in memory, and information that is accessible in memory.  Information that is accessible is readily recalled.  Information that cannot be recalled is likely available in memory but cannot be accessed at a particular time.  The healthy memory blog post “The Myth of Cognitive Decline”  explains that the slowness of recall and the apparent loss of memory is primarily due to the enormous amount of information stored in the elderly brain.  There is much more to search through than in younger brains, so it is often slower and can appear to be faulty.  However, often when you fail to recall an item, your non-conscious memory continues to search for it, and it might pop into your consciousness a day later or even more.

It is more accurate to say that the mind recreates rather than recall memories.  Memories are not exact copies of prior experiences.  Moreover the act of recall improves the likelihood that the memory will be accessible in the future.  This is why when studying it is important to try to recall information rather than simply reviewing.  Testing provides the basis for improving memory.

So we cannot underestimate the importance of memory, and the healthy memory blog is devoted to keeping memories healthy.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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One Response to “Brain, Mind, Memory”

  1. russvane3 Says:

    Anecdotally, a study of the eyes will show dilation (I believe this is equivalent to focusing/getting more detail) as one examines a photo. This dilation is probably informed by the person’s memories as you suggest. Men look at photos of women in a differentiated way, not just a scan. Politicians and teachers examine faces similarly.

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