The Persistence of Memory, or lack thereof

8 11 2008

I have a rule, that any idea conceived within the first ten minutes after awakening in the morning must be summarily dispatched to the recycle bin of my mind.  So many ideas that seem impressively insightful just after leaving that dream state generally turn out to be the wildest absurdities.  I remember one morning, chuckling to myself in the shower as I considered a lawyer joke from my dream, only to become acutely aware, gradually, that what I had thought was funny made absolutely no sense at all.  However, I will break my rule today, because what I hit upon yesterday within the first ten minutes not only relates to sleep itself, but also remains plausible to me even now, mid-afternoon and seven cups of coffee later.  There’s this certain nagging question as to why we dream eight times a night, yet infrequently even remember one.  In theory, a thought is a thought, whether done in a dream state or awake.  Yet, we retain very little of what happens when we are under the influence of the sand man.

I think I know, now.

A single brain cell has one simple function in life: to receive signals from other brain cells and to make a decision to pass it on or to sit on it and forget about it.  Like motor and sensory neurons, every brain cell omits a certain amount of noise, which is to say that it occasionally emits a signal that came from nowhere, much like a blogger sitting at a computer and feeling bored.  It says, “I’m bored.  I think I’ll call a friend or write a letter,” and then sends a message about nothing.  The recipient then has a choice to acknowledge this as a desperate attempt at self-entertainment and ignore it as idle chatter, or make something out of it and spread the gossip to the next neuron in the grapevine.  The same is true for both brain cells and other neurons.  They must make a distinction between chatter and meaningful information.  Where brain cells and sensory neurons diverge, however, is in their forgiveness of their neighbor’s intrusion.  If you were to stab yourself with a pin and leave it there, it would hurt more initially than it would a few moments later.  It would hurt even less the next day, unless something happened to bump it and cause a new flood of sensation.  The sensory neurons that had the misfortune of getting stabbed in the butt by your pin would be signalling all the same, whining and complaining about their predicament, but their neighbors would, with time, learn to turn them a deaf ear.  “Really, who wants to listen to whining all day?  We know you’re in trouble, and we already alerted the authorities.”  They then turn up the radio to drown out the incessent complaint.  This is a good thing.  Imagine being persistently aware of every touch and every sensation all the time.  One might go mad.  With sensory neurons one can remove the stimulus, such as to remove the pin, and the whining ceases.  Eventually, the neighboring neuron notices and turns down the volume on the radio, and once again becomes more willing to hear the words of his friend.  With brain cells, this is where the similarities end.  Some brain cells never turn down that radio, and they never become good listeners again (Some brain cells can be so unforgiving).  This is the essence of long-term memory.  Something happens.  A stimulus is received.  Certain cells are affected by that stimulus.  Those cells respond by altering their propensity to pass that signal to the next cell in line.  If it’s only a quick little signal, then not much happens.  If the signal persists, then the cell grows tired of it and becomes less likely to care.  Then the way information passes through the brain becomes (somewhat) permanently altered.  A memory is formed.  To make a memory last, the only trick is in the exposure time.  The longer one thinks about a thing, the more impact this has on the response of the neurons involved.  Hence, cramming for an exam the night before means forgetting everything by the Saturday night party that week.  The geek who invests time in the matter, thusly forfeiting his dating privileges, is the one who remembers the material long enough to become the manager over the guy who crammed the night before.  There is no substitute for time.  One needs to expose those brain cells to an idea for a long enough time to make them adjust.

At this point, I need to add that the brain works in cycles.  A person never experiences a thought just once.  The moment a signal enters the brain, some of it cycles back around and starts it all over again.  Further downstream, the signal gets processed a little, and a little of that signal goes back to the beginning and starts the process all over again.  The signal gets further processed and better understood, and yet a little more of that signal gets sent back to the beginning to do it all over again.  The reason?  Imagine having every thought for no more than one hundredth of a second.  What was that?  I think I just had a thought.  Oh, well, it’s gone now.  There would be no remembering it.  This process is also known as echoic memory, because it keeps bouncing back, like an echo in a large room, until it eventually fades away.  If a thought spends enough time in that echoic memory, then it is more likely to induce a change in the long-term memory.  It stands to reason that the brain cells involved in echoic memory are more forgiving, likely to listen to their neighbor once again, if he earns their audience.  The long-term cells, though, are more likely to make a more permanent change of attitude.

So, what’s up with dreams?  Why don’t we remember them?  I think of the mind as being like a top.  Initially, a person must physically make that thing spin to get it going.  Once spinning, it runs in circles, on its own, becoming ever slower and slower.  At no time after the person lets go of it does it spin any faster than it did to start with.  In fact, every second that lapses sees it spinning slower than the second before.  This is important to consider, because the brain also works in cycles that start with an initial input of energy, beginning with a sensation.  The cells involved become less and less interested in the matter, until the whole thing dies out.  When a person sleeps, they are, quite literally, shut off from the outside world.  The brainstem actually serves the purpose of paralyzing a person, to prevent signals from entering or leaving the brain.  If this fails, then the person might walk or talk in their sleep, or never get to sleep at all.  Conversely, if this fails to turn itself off at the end of sleep, one might become temporarily trapped in a paralysis, which often is accompanied by hallucinations.  Yes, this actually happens to people.  So when a person is asleep, the brain is parted from the world of the living.  No input comes, and no output goes (generally speaking).  Without any further stimulus, the upstream neurons on the pathway have less to gossip about to their neighbors.  They still have old stories to tell, and they still have a few to invent, but the stream is never stronger at any point during sleep than it was while awake, just like the top, which spins ever slower with each second.  Oh, the brainwaves never stop.  Don’t get me wrong on that.  In fact, they seem to get stronger at times.  However, the meaning gets lost.  The brain cells play a season of reruns, and their audience (other brain cells) only watch with mild amusement, having seen it before, only in brighter colors, on the big screen, back when it was more interesting.  One could imagine a bunch of loafers lounging on a porch, and one of them says, “Hey George, why don’t you tell us the one about the three-foot rainbow trout?”  wherein George begins his story, and someone picks up a stick to whittle idly, perhaps to cope with the mundaneness of it all.  It would be more interesting if George were catching that unlikely trout right then and there, for the first time, but this is not a world where much happens.  The radio is broken and the television never got decent reception anyway.  So a town of brain cells sits around and chatters at each other, and no one bothers to write anything down.

The problem is in the lack of input.  You could close your eyes and plug your ears, but you’d never be without sensory input.  However, for anyone who has lied awake at night, unable to sleep for the thoughts that they could not shake, there comes a different sort of input.  A person can shut out the outside world, mentally, yet still have an internal source of input that can keep the brain working in an active state.  Normally, the sensory input from without is the fuel that drives the thoughts of the brain, but there seems to be another driving force that comes from within.  It’s that will of a human that motivates a person to sit down and do something creative or go out and change the world.  It’s the ability of a person to be innovative and do something different.  It’s what drives a person to actually read what’s on the computer screen, rather than simply staring at it, complacently.  This internal input, the ability to start a thought without having the object of that thought or any relevant stimulus, has to have a source, just like sensation needs a thing sensed.  Otherwise, the internally-generated thoughts are no better than dreams, and they would not generate memories.  They might not even generate coherent thought.  Just like the top needs the hand that starts it spinning, the thoughts need a force from beyond the mind to get the ideas rolling.  Otherwise, it’s just sleep.  If it isn’t the direct result of physical stimulus, then it’s the result of something else.

Something else…something that goes beyond the physical.  Internally-initiated thoughts are generated from the spirit.

I came to this conclusion between 5:45 AM and 6:00 AM, while slapping water on my face.





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