New Research on How the Mind Works

2008062663img11In 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…