Sunday, 23 April 2017

Remembering and Time Travel

Is this a kind of time travel? Without any deliberate action on my part, a clear vision of the past appeared. In this case the distant past, some fifty years past. 

I was reading an article about gravity - some new theories, and suddenly there in what we have come to call our "minds-eye" [1] was a picture of a school classroom and the apparatus I had used to measure the force of gravity, this together with a slightly foggy image of the classroom wall where a light beam from a mirror mounted on the apparatus shone a spot.

This sudden and quite remarkably clear recollection inspired me to investigate the latest thinking on Gravity and then to write an article about it [2].

Perhaps surprisingly this is not the first time this recalling of distant memories has happened to me recently, and for this reason when I caught the end of a BBC Radio 4 programme on memory (19th April), my attention was grabbed.

In “The ideas that make us: Memory” [3], Bettany Hughes [4] interviewed Dr Catherine Loveday [5], a neuropsychologist from the University of Westminster, and asked, “do our memories make us, us?
Catherine answered, “I think there is something unique about human memory, the ability to travel back in time and to travel forward in time and to daydream. They are very much, I think, fundamentally part of what it is to be a human being, and we do it without thinking about it”.
She went on to say, “
we can’t think forward without thinking backwards... we use the building blocks of our past to create a narrative for the future”.

Bettany summarised the conversation, “memory doesn’t look backwards, it allows our minds to travel in time”.

This ability to travel in time, recalling incidents from ones past and then allowing these to shape ones future, would in itself be interesting, but add to that the seemingly statistically impossible intersection of the timelines of individuals, and you have something really quite intriguing. 

I had arranged to have lunch two days after listening to the radio broadcast, with someone who had been introduced to me a few weeks previously. 

To ensure that we had a productive meeting that morning I took the time to read something about her, in this case an article in a university journal I had found via a Google search. The article had just one reference at the end, “Bion WR. The psycho-analytic study of thinking” [6].
The reference had been appended as in the article she had mentioned that she made use of Bion’s theory of learning. For this reason I read the short paper as well as the article.

How strange then, at this specific point in time, to make the discovery when reading Wilfred Bion’s paper that he believed, “thinking has to be called into existence to cope with thoughts”.

In the first paragraph of this article I said, “This sudden and quite remarkably clear recollection inspired me to investigate the latest thinking on Gravity and then to write an article about it”. Certainly to process my quite unintended recollection I had started to think about the subject and this in turn led to more thoughts and actions.

After listening to the BBC radio broadcast I searched for research by Dr Catherine Loveday and found her 2015 research paper “Remembering, imagining, false memories & personal meanings” [7], in this paper she explains that the Autobiographical Memory (AM) [8], “is labile and intrinsically responsive to cues. Occasionally, on a daily basis an AM may spontaneously come to mind. Such involuntary memories often appear to be the result of a specific cue”.

While reading her paper I remembered that in 2011, as part of some work I was doing at the time, I had wanted to know more about areas such as “Cognitive Load” and “How Memory Works” and a friend at Cambridge had pointed me in the direction of the work of Alan Baddeley [9,10]

His work had provided me with insight into how our short and long term memory systems function, and interact, and it had become clear that our working memory [11] is in constant contact with our long-term memory [12] as well as providing an interface with our perception systems.

In his 2003 paper, “Working Memory: Looking back and looking forward” [13]. Alan explains at the end of his paper, “Our behaviour is clearly determined not by simple chains of cause and effect, but rather by a range of controlling factors that operate simultaneously at many different levels, often implicit, but sometimes explicit”.

But still this memory that had been recalled, without any conscious action on my part, was very old and there exists a common perception that as time passes our memories fade [14,15], so why was this memory so clear? 

With some investigation I discovered that in the case of “visual memories” [16], that is memories of objects, places, animals or people, our memory capacity seems to be quite incredible [17] and coupled with this vast storage capacity is an ability to reassemble memory fragments [18], allowing us to retrieve memories originally set down decades before.

But this vast memory store and retrieve system that we possess does have some flaws, Dr Catherine Loveday explains that our minds are able to fill in any gaps in our memories and this process can lead to both “time compression” [19] where a number of incidents are brought together when in reality they did not occur at the same time, and also remembrances that are not completely accurate [20].

Further research on the subject exposed a 2009 paper by Daniel Bernstein and Elizabeth Loftus, “How to Tell If a Particular Memory Is True or False” [21]. In this paper they report:

“We now know that suggestion and imagination can make a false memory feel and appear real”.

In essence, all memory is false to some degree.
Memory is inherently a reconstructive process, whereby we piece together the past to form a coherent narrative that becomes our autobiography. In the process of reconstructing the past, we color and shape our life’s experiences based on what we know about the world”.

How accurate was the image of the classroom my memory had recalled?

I will never know now as my old school building has now been replaced, but it was real enough to allow my recall of an experiment I had carried out then and to inspire my further investigation. I’m sure that for both philosophers and psychologists this area of human capability provides a rich panoply of questions for the future.

However, future research aside, what is clear is that the human mind can provide us with this amazing ability to travel back in time; our memories can certainly enhance our actions today and more than that they can help us to shape our direction in future times, we just need to keep an open mind. 

  1. Minds-Eye or Mental Image -
  2. Gravity emerges from history, J Patmore (2017) - history.html
  3. BBC Radio 4 - The Ideas That Make Us, Series 5, Memory – (19-04-17)
  4. Bettany Hughes -
  5. Dr Catherine Loveday -
  6. Bion WR (1962), The psycho-analytic study of thinking. International Journal of Psychoanalysis.1962; 43: 306–310 -
  7. Conway, M. A. & Loveday, C (2015), Remembering, imagining, false memories & personal meanings, . Consciousness and Cognition, 33, pp. 574-581. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2014.12.002 -
  8. Autobiographical memory -
  9. Alan Baddeley -
  10. Thinking about thinking – J Patmore (2011) -
  11. Working Memory -
  12. Long-term memory -
  13. Baddeley, A (2003), 'Working memory: looking back and looking forward' Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 4, no. 10, pp. 829-39. DOI: 10.1038/nrn1201 -
  14. Memories fade as time passes -
  15. How memories form, fade, and persist over time -
  16. Visual Memory -
  17. Timothy F. Brady et al, (2008), Visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139 -
  18. Handbook of binding and memory: perspectives from cognitive neuroscience, edited by Hubert D. Zimmer, Axel Mecklinger and Ulman Lindenberger: Oxford University Press, (2006). – Chapter 2, Binding memory fragments together to form declarative memories depends on cross-cortical storage, Ken A. Paller -
  19. Time Compression in memory - Conway, M. A. & Loveday, C (2015). Remembering, imagining, false memories & personal meanings. Consciousness and Cognition, 33, pp. 574-581. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2014.12.002 -
  20. Daniel L. Schacter et al, (2011), Memory distortion: an adaptive perspective, Trends Cogn Sci. October; 15(10): 467– 474. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2011.08.004. -
  21. Daniel M Bernstein, Elizabeth F Loftus, (2009), How to Tell If a Particular Memory Is True or False, Perspectives on Psychological Science 4, DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01140.x, - 

DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.20843.54569

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