The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Reconstructing And Making Sense

The mechanism of "reconstructing" the memory of an event is quite complex. There is more involved than a simple "retrieval" of encoded information.

In 1904 German biologist Richard Semon had already speculated that memory was as much about retrieval as about storage. He introduced the concept of “engram”: the unit of memory, or, better, the pattern used to encode it (the "memory trace"). He then introduced another concept: the “ecphoric stimulus”: the cue that helps retrieve a specific memory. He noticed that the likelihood of finding a memory depends also on the cue that is used to retrieve it (the pattern used to decode it). We are often forced to remember something simply because we encountered a word or saw something that “reminds” us of something else. It was merely a fleeing moment, but enough to bring back the memory of something or somebody. Semon realized the power of cues: a cue is only a fraction of the engram, but it is enough to retrieve the whole engram.

The fact that memory is not a linear recording of sensory input reveals that something helps memory make sense of the past. When memory reconstructs an event, it must have a way to do so in a "meaningful" way. The memory of an event is not just a disordered set of memories more or less related to that event. It is one flowing sequence of memories that follow one from the other. Sometimes you cannot finish relating the plot of a novel because you "forgot" a key part of it: the truth is that you forgot all of it and you were reconstructing it, and, while reconstructing it, you realized that something was missing. You cannot reconstruct the plot because you have an inner sense of what reality must be like. You may know how the novel ends and how it goes up to a point, and then you realize that something is necessary in order to join that point to the ending. Your reconstructive memory knows that something is missing in the reconstruction because the reconstruction does not yet "make sense".

The fascination of movies or novels is that you have to put together reality until it makes sense again. You have to find the missing elements so that the story gets "explained". Our brain has a sense of what makes sense and what does not.


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