Consciousness as Memory

Since the 1990’s decade of the brain, researchers investigating the brain and our experience as conscious persons have undermined, if not contradicted, our normal everyday understanding of ourselves as beings who immediately and directly sense our surroundings and make consciously reasoned decisions on our options. This post will informally explore some implications of these findings using the reference below (Budson, et al., 2022).

The Budson article puts forward a theory of consciousness, a description of how consciousness (might) work, which tries to incorporate much of this research. Our simple picture of ourselves sketched in my first paragraph is untenable in light of much detailed research which is summarised and described in the Budson article. However, some striking examples are available to anyone who has engaged in a sport which depends on reflexes and/or who has played music, particularly improvised music.


An example from sports – specifically cricket: I was at third slip and our fast bowler pitched a beautiful ball just outside off stump. I remember seeing the ball hit the pitch but my next conscious awareness was of the ball in my hands just in front of my right shoulder. This is an example of the mismatch in speed between the processing of conscious reactions and the response times necessary to hit or catch a cricket ball, hit a tennis ball or baseball, or deflect a soccer shot at goal. Other examples come from music: the speed at which, for example, a be-bop line comes by is too quick to allow conscious evaluation of where my playing is in relation to the rest of the band.

A more ethereal example of this is the saying, attributed to among others, Sonny Rollins, Jaroslav Mitous, Carlos Santana and Paul Wertico, that they don’t play music, the music plays them. This is also true for me in my humble playing and in doing therapy: the notes in music, the ideas or words in therapy seem to arise within the situation rather than being produced by me. Certainly, in speaking with clients I need to choose the words to sculpt the ideas to the relationship moment, but even that process seems to happen “under the covers”.

The description in the article:

“… there is confusion between why consciousness developed and what additional functions, through continued evolution, it has co-opted. Consider episodic memory. If we believe that episodic memory evolved solely to accurately represent past events, it seems like a terrible system—prone to forgetting and false memories. However, if we believe that episodic memory developed to flexibly and creatively combine and rearrange memories of prior events in order to plan for the future, then it is quite a good system. We argue that consciousness originally developed as part of the episodic memory system—quite likely the part needed to accomplish that flexible recombining of information. We posit further that consciousness was subsequently co-opted to produce other functions that are not directly relevant to memory per se, such as problem-solving, abstract thinking, and language…. Moreover, we suggest that episodic memory and its associated memory systems of sensory, working, and semantic memory as a whole ought to be considered together as the conscious memory system in that they, together, give rise to the phenomenon of consciousness.“ [SM: Italics in the original]

Budson, et al., 2022

An implication of this description, supported by a famous study whose basic contention has been confirmed by other approaches, is that our conscious experience lags about a half second behind the event being experienced. That seems to be true whether the event is external like contact on the skin, or internal like being aware of making a decision. That result was, and probably still is, often taken as “proof” that free will is an illusion but, as implied below, we don’t have to follow that fragile thought bubble.

Who is … ?

The challenge for our self-identification is that we feel ourselves to be, as William James said, the consciously experienced stream of our subjectivity. If, for example, our actual decisions (actual in the sense of the occurrence of identifiable brain activity) are happening before we are aware of them then who is the decider? Who is making those decisions? (Those of you with a Zen-informed outlook might be familiar with the Zen questions from Bassui Zenji: “Who is hearing? Who is seeing?”)

Who/What Might I Be?

The resolution of this challenge can only come from a wider or deeper understanding of ourself. I need to see myself as, like the famous turtles, “going all the way down”. I must identify with all that happens “under the covers” to sustain my phenomenal experience, even though I may not be conscious of the underlying processual details. Details like: my heartbeat, of which I’m rarely conscious; digestion ditto; details of muscle recruitment to accomplish a task (like typing); deciding to restart typing; word choice (sometimes partly conscious as when a word feels wrong and a better word pops up … from somewhere); hitting a top-spin forehand; leaving a ball outside off-stump.

“I” do all these things even though “I” am only consciously aware of the very top layer of their doing by the organic functions that comprise “me”.

… And in Society?

What then of individual responsibility, without some variety of which no society can survive for long? While not absolutely determinable, the “material” used by these pre-conscious decision processes includes our previous experiences, including those embodying our moral and ethical stances. We learn the details of our moral and ethical standards, at least initially, through the results of interactions with other members of our family, teachers and wider society. Later, the experiences we choose ourself modulate those initial structures.

Briefly, it’s necessary for society to hold individuals accountable for their actions. To do this, despite the actions arising from those individuals’ pre-conscious processes, society must hold the responsible person to include their human, pre-conscious processes. More sophisticated societies will have criteria for establishing whether an individual was sufficiently impaired in their physical and/or psycho-emotional development to be able to exercise responsibility per the definitions pertinent to the society.






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