There are many theories about memory, and as far as I can see, nobody has really got it figured out yet. Probably one of our most common models is a filing cabinet. We have the idea that everything that happens and everything we ever learn is stored away in some drawer inside our brain. When we want to remember it, we just need to go to the right drawer and take it out.
The trouble is, we haven’t been able to find anything remotely like this filing cabinet in the brain. At the neurological level there seem to be many regions of the brain involved in the processes of memory, not just the hippocampus, although that does seem to be very important.
Rupert Sheldrake, in his Science Delusion, proposed an interestingly different model – one of resonance. Briefly, he suggests that memory is stored outside the person and in the universe, so recalling something is more like tuning in to a radio station. Once you hit the right wavelength you have access to the memory.
Henri Bergson had a different theory –
His intriguing theory was that all memory is like the muscle memory that enables the body to recall how to ride a bicycle or to swim. These muscle memories are not stored as representations and, similarly, the mind does not store recollections but in perceiving a situation instantly brings into play the appropriate previous mental responses, just like the body discovering itself on a bike or in the sea. So memory does not wait patiently in some dusty archive but is constantly and urgently pressing forward into perception, to the extent that the characteristic movement of memory is not from present into past but from past into present
In some ways, this is close to the neurological teaching of “what fires together wires together”. Memory, in other words, isn’t like a photographic image, a book, or a film archive. It’s a constantly active process of engaging with the world. It’s not about a file waiting to be found with the help of the right card index. It’s more like the way we learn to use our bodies – to walk, ride a bike or swim. When we do those actions we don’t have to go back into our brain stores and find the manuals!
The memory functions involved in these skills are embodied.
This is a surprisingly holistic model to develop years before we began to uncover the ways in which all of our mental processes are embodied.
One of the enticing aspects of this theory is that all that we have ever done, experienced or learned, is actually ever present, ever “urgently pressing forward into perception” in ways which deeply influence what we perceive, and also, what we do, now.
Of course, I bet some of you are thinking “memory is constantly and urgently pressing forward into perception”? So, why can’t I remember somebody’s name when I think about them? Why do I come back from the shop without some of the things I went to buy?
I don’t think a dynamic, active model of memory means that we have 100% recall. In fact, clearly, that isn’t the case for any of us, and however memory works, it sure doesn’t include the ability to remember every experience and piece of knowledge we have ever encountered. That’s probably for a very good reason.
I suspect it would be impossible to get through life if we didn’t manage to forget, as well as being able to remember……but then, that’s probably the subject of another post!