(Established in 1988)
A Neuro-Behavioral Medicine Clinic
Dr. Gautham's Neuro
Programming the mind
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Part of cognition, memory is much more
than simply a passive storage system for knowledge. Memory is a set of
active processes that encode information. Memory "packages" the
information so that it is easier to remember and can be associated with
related items already in memory. Memory also involves storing information,
which includes constantly rearranging what has been stored so that new
knowledge is integrated with what is already in storage, and locating and
retrieving information as it is needed. For example, cognition assists
memory by helping to identify what is important to remember, thereby
freeing you of having to recall everything.
First off, it is important to
recognize that there are multiple memory systems, or multiple forms of
memory, and they are each mediated by different physical regions in the
brain or different wiring systems. And along with that separation, each
has distinct operating characteristics that affect how and when things can
One of the major lines along which
to break down memory types is to distinguish long term versus short term.
Within short term memory,
researchers often talk about immediate short term memory, which refers to
the amount of information a person can respond to or repeat back
immediately. A longer form of short term memory is called working memory.
This is the memory function that
works as the thinking part of the brain, the part that allows us to do
math or take advantage of stored facts for logical deduction. However,
even though working memory may rely on some stored information, the data
it is currently processing does not necessarily get stored in any long
To distinguish between short term
and working memory, Howard Eichenbaum, a professor of psychology at Boston
University, uses the example of someone looking up a phone number in a
phone book. For a very short time, the person might be able to remember
quite a bit about the page on which they found the number, its color,
surrounding names, etc. That information is stored in short term memory
and disperses rapidly. But working memory will take over, repeating, for
example, the seven digit phone number as one walks from the book to the
phone. Long term memory, on the other hand, is that information that
sticks with you for a long time, on the order of days, weeks and years.
Long term memory is itself
subdivided into two broad categories, declarative or conscious memory and
non-declarative or unconscious memory, which holds information that cannot
usually be accessed by the conscious mind but is present and used
nonetheless. Within declarative long term memory there are also
subcategories, episodic and semantic being the main ones.
Episodic memory refers to personal
life memories, events you took part in, what you had for breakfast
yesterday, childhood experiences and the like. Semantic memory is more
general knowledge about the world and language, such as who was the first
President or that Paris is the capital of France. Although one could argue
that all semantic memory is gained through personal experiences, such as
in a classroom or during a conversation with a friend, somehow this sort
of factual knowledge seems to be filed in a system distinct from episodic
memory. Some scientists think that the distinction between the two is not
complete and that episodic memory may be something of a gateway to the
storage of semantic memories because such facts were first encountered
during a personal experience of one kind or another. Interestingly though,
episodic memories are organized by experience, in something of a time
sequence ("I went to dinner with Joe before I left for Paris"), whereas
semantic memories are organized around the logical structure of the
subject (the government"s organizational tree or grammar rules) and is
In addition, within long term memory
there is emotional memory, that makes you nervous when you enter a dark
alley; even though nothing has gone wrong at that moment, your brain
associates the situation with danger and you may feel fear. Similarly,
when you hear the thumping of the musical score to a scary scene from the
movie Jaws, you expect to see a shark and your heart may start beating a
As for nondeclarative memory, this includes things like procedural memory, certain habit learning or skills learned that have now become totally unconscious. Much of our life is run by such activities, like driving that familiar route to work, which is such a routine that you often do not even remember the drive because you were thinking consciously about something else while relying on habit to navigate the trip. The skills required for more common tasks like speaking, typing, riding a bike, also rely on procedural memory.
behavioral science various terms have evolved, all of which have the
connotation of Programming.
Imitation is the simplest form of
programming of the mind. In imitation a new behaviour is learned by
copying it from someone else. This is what has variously been called
instinctive imitation, imitative suggestion, social facilitation, coaction,
and (simply) contagion. Examples in humans include the spread of yawning,
coughing or laughter. All these behaviours are extremely contagious.
Indeed it can be difficult not to laugh if everyone around you is already
laughing. This kind of contagion probably relies on specific stimulus
feature detectors which detect laughing or yawning in
someone else and then trigger the same innate behaviour as the response.
Classical conditioning is when two stimuli
become associated by repeated pairing. In the best known experiments
Pavlov paired sounds with the smell of meat and found that dogs then
salivated to the sounds even without any meat. Classical conditioning is
widespread in the animal kingdom, for example when animals learn to
distinguish palatable foods from poisonous foods, or learn other important
facts about their environment. It occurs in humans whenever we associate
two things together because they have previously been paired, whether
those things are sights, sounds, tunes, ideas or pain. Behaviour is
changed by the process but nothing is passed on by imitation from one
person to another, so the process is not memetic.
Whether consciously or not, parents shape
their children's behaviour by the way they reinforce them. The most
effective reward for children is attention and rewards work better than
punishment. So if parents pay lots of attention to their children when
they are behaving well, and act uninterested when they scream or have
tantrums, then behaving well is in the best interests of the children and
they will do it. The parents' behaviour can be seen as part of the
environment in which the children learn, or as part of a complex pattern
of social learning (discussed below). Either way if the children are not
imitating the parents then the process is not memetic.
We learn many things by trial and error,
such as the physical skills of walking without falling over or riding a
bike, or general ways of interacting with other people and the world. For
example, people who are generally rewarded for hard work and persistence
will behave differently from people whose efforts are met with arbitrary
results. Of course memes may be involved - such as the very idea of riding
a bike in the first place - but whenever we repeat actions that led to
successful outcomes and suppress actions that led to pain or failure, then
we are learning for ourselves by operant conditioning.
Many animals develop
complex mental maps of their environment without which they could not live
at all, whether they are cats, rats, insects or birds. Some have complex
territorial systems in which boundaries are carefully guarded, some (like
squirrels for example) hide large numbers of food items are able
accurately to find them again, while others use well known paths to
explore and find food. The information in the maps is learned by
exploration and conditioning. There is no imitation involved. Similarly we
develop complex cognitive maps of our own house and garden, the city we
live in, and the places we go for our holidays. We can find our way around
these places and conjure them up in our imagination.
Social learning means learning something
from other people, (or, more generally, from co specifics). Very often
classical and operant conditioning are the basic processes involved, but
something is learned in a way that involves other people or animals.
includes true imitation, but there are other kinds of social learning as
well. Imitation means learning something about the form of behaviour
through observing others, while other kinds of social learning are
learning about the environment through observing others. In true imitation
something about the action is copied from actor to imitator, while in
other forms of social learning nothing is copied.
Processing" refers to the way in which the mind processes bits of
information. Using the software analogy the mind can be
said to be programmed using units known as "MEMES". A meme is nothing more
than a pattern of information, one that happens to have evolved a form
which induces people to repeat that pattern. Typical memes include
individual slogans, ideas, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and
fashions. It may sound a bit sinister, this idea that people are hosts for
mind-altering strings of symbols, but in fact this is what human culture
is all about.
The memes keep evolving, just as in the game of "Telephone" (where a message is whispered from person to person, being slightly mis-replicated each time). Selection favors the memes which are easiest to understand, to remember, and to communicate to others. Garbled versions of a useful meme would presumably be selected out.