Sensory impressions of what we see and hear cause electrical activity in the brain. There is evidence that when a new memory is formed, new proteins are made locally at the synapse – the connection between nerve cells – increasing the strength of the synaptic connection and reinforcing the memory. The journal Science reveals that neuroscientists have captured an image for the first time of this mechanism.
You may wonder that if memories are chemically and electrically stored in this way, does this mean that your Synapse xt brain is the be-all and end-all of your memory and that without your brain you would remember nothing after death?
It would seem so. After all, many brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s can cause memory loss, as can brain injury.
Brain a necessary but insufficient cause?
And so the human mind is often explained away as nothing more than the workings of the brain. Neuroscientist, Raymond Tallis, believes that the brain is clearly necessary for our having memories. But he also wonders if it is a sufficient explanation of the experience of remembering. He points out that the brain is a mechanism but the content of memory is not entirely contained in the mechanism of electrical impulses going along nerve fibres. He feels we need a bit more and suggests what that bit more is, no scientist knows.
The spiritual thinker might point out that the redness of something remembered or its beauty cannot just be due to what happens in the activity of matter of the brain but has something to do with a consciousness of mind that transcends matter.
Brain as detector or activator of mind?
Wilder Penfield was a brain surgeon. His patients frequently reported hearing hazy voices coming from some strange and unknown place when he stimulated the right temporal lobes of their exposed brains with a mild electric current. Elaborate recollections and other conscious experiences did occur at such times. However he went on to say these were either automatic, as in epileptic seizures, or felt to be caused by the surgeon’s probes. He thus concluded that direct electrical stimulation of the brain never activated the person’s mind.
A. R. Lauria, neuropsychologist, has pointed out that, for many centuries, philosophers and other scholars supposed that the brain was a detector (rather than an activator) of mind, which itself was seen as an inner, subjective state of consciousness. Like many spiritual ideas such a theory is these days seen as not amenable to scientific proof.
In a noisy room full of people having separate conversations, we may likely want to attend only, or mainly, to one specific conversation – not always the one we are participating in – without being too distracted by others. We can do this by focusing on the distinctive quality and volume of one particular person’s voice, and where the sound is coming from.
Divided attention is possible but the principle is the same – i.e. unattended input is said to receive only minimal brain processing. In other words, our noticing something and reflecting on it, is necessary to fix some experience or fact into the patterns of memory. Without interest we remember less.
And so it can be argued that personal choice is relevant to what we attend and thus remember. Yet for the scientist, everything must be determined by some measurable entity: like what is seen or heard, the chemical state of one’s brain or one’s genetic makeup. No room here for the notions of intention and free will.