In the NYRB, Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff review several new books on neuroscience and implications of the research for memory, meaning, representation and reality:
Both [Jean-Pierre] Changeux and [Gerald] Edelman propose that during memory formation, our interactions with the world cause a Darwinian selection of neural circuits, much as the body, when invaded by a virus, “selects” the most potent antibodies from the enormous repertoire of antibodies made available by the body’s immune system. However, the resulting memory is not, Edelman says, a representation of the outside world, any more than the antibody that has protected the body against an infecting virus is a representation of that virus. Yet the antibody can protect the body against a future attack by the virus, just as the neural circuits can contribute to memory recall. Instead, Edelman writes, memory is the ability to
repeat a mental or physical act after some time despite a changing context…. We stress repetition after some time in this definition because it is the ability to re-create an act separated by a certain duration from the original signal set that is characteristic of memory. And in mentioning a changing context, we pay heed to a key property of memory in the brain: that it is, in some sense, a form of constructive recategorization during ongoing experience, rather than a precise replication of a previous sequence of events.
For Edelman, then, memory is not a “small scale model of external reality,” but a dynamic process that enables us to repeat a mental or physical act…