Monday, 2 November 2020

Does the brain store memories?

The idea that brains store memories has a difficulty. Memories would presumably have to be stored via information. All information can, in principle, be represented by a string of numbers, say 100011011000.  But how would we know what memory that such a string of numbers represents? Books can contain lots of info, but we only understand them as we know the meaning of English words. We also have to remember the meaning of English words. Likewise we have to remember what memory 100011011000 stands for. As it stands it's not a memory any more than a knot in a hanky is.

So we need further info.  Something like 111001? But then we get the exact same objection. How do we know what 111001 stands for? Yet more info? Then we get an infinite regress.

My view is that memories cannot and are not stored.  We have to be in touch with them directly, so to speak.  Compare to vision.  We may not be able to see something clearly, even misinterpret what we are seeing.  But that doesn't rule out we are not directly seeing that something i.e we are not just acquainted with a representation of the seen object in our minds.


  1. What do you mean by "directly"? We are always seeing things indirectly mediated through our senses. We never see things as they are in themselves. The sentence would make more sense to me if rephrased as "But that doesn't rule out we are indirectly seeing that something which is real, that exists and of which we intuit an inherent truth by an indirect identity, i.e we are not just acquainted with a representation of the seen object in our minds."

  2. I reject the representative theory of perception. I think we see reality directly. For example, many idealists eg subjective idealists, hold this. But, even if I were a dualist, I would reject that we do not directly perceive the world.

    This is not something I want to argue about here though. Maybe OK for a future blog post. I also think it's a good idea to do what you suggest in your other comment, namely write a book.

  3. All the same, memories are stored in particular areas of the brain. It is a fact that electric stimulation of a point of brain tissue may stimulate a memory of an event. It still is not clear though what is the normal extent of such an 'event'. And the stimulation seems to call up an almost real replaying of the event.

    To further complicate matters, it also seems that we store an almost unlimited record of our lives, as in the 'near-death past-life-recall' experience.

    We are a long way from any real theory of what 'life' (including memory) actually is. It certainly isn't any kind of digital encoding, but is, as you say, a 'real' experience.

  4. ||"It is a fact that electric stimulation of a point of brain tissue may stimulate a memory of an event".||

    OK, but that doesn't entail that part of the brain is storing the memory. Memories appear to be mediated by the brain like our vision is mediated by the specs we wear.

  5. I would recommend reading "Other Minds" by Peter Godfrey-Smith, which describes the fascinating phenomena of split-brain memories in octopus :
    In my view, this is the best evidence to distinguish between the brain as a receiver as opposed to a generator of consciousness. Of course, memory isn't the same thing, but it would seem strange indeed if consciousness in one half of the brain isn't able to convey information to the other half.

    On the other hand, flatworms clearly do not store memories in the brain at all, but pretty definitely it's stored somewhere in their bodies :


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