Our conscious experience of the world is just a memory, according to a new theory

Sitting on the Marine Atlantic ferry, I watch the Newfoundland skyline disappear into the horizon as I type. I see the swaying of the ocean waves, I inhale its salty breeze, I feel and hear the hum of the ship’s engine. I’m trying to concentrate on writing this sentence, but I hope my eyes are scanning the ocean for a rogue whale splashing around.

According to a new article by Cognitive and behavioral neurology, those sights, smells and looks are just memories, even though I feel like they are happening in real time. A Boston team has presented a new theory of consciousness that ties it inextricably to memory.

In a nutshell: consciousness basically evolved as a memory system. It helps us remember events in our life – when, where, what and who – which in turn can help us recombine them in creative and flexible ways to predict or imagine alternative possibilities.

It gets more mind-blowing. Rather than perceiving the world in real time, we actually experience a memory of that perception. Simply put, our unconscious minds filter and process the world under the hood and often make split-second decisions. When we become aware of these perceptions and decisions, that is, once they have reached the level of consciousness, we actually experience “memories of these unconscious decisions and actions,” the authors explained.

In other words, it is mainly the unconscious that is driving.

Thanks to the massively parallel computing power of biological neural networks – or neural circuits – much of the brain’s processing of our environment and internal feelings happens without our knowledge. Consciousness, in turn, acts as a part of our memory to help bind events together into a coherent, serial narrative that flows over time, rather than snippets from a disjointed dream.

“Our theory is that consciousness developed as a memory system that is used by our unconscious brain to help us flexibly and creatively imagine the future and plan accordingly,” said the author, the Dr. Andrew Budson. “We don’t perceive the world, make decisions, or perform actions directly. Instead, we do all these things unconsciously and then, about half a second later, we consciously remember having done them.

For now, the theory is just that – a theory. But seeing consciousness through the lens of a memory system could provide new clues to brain disorders, such as stroke, epilepsy, dementia and others that impair memory or consciousness. The theory also raises questions about animal, AI and mini-brain consciousness, helping neuroscientists dig deeper into how the conscious and unconscious brain works together every second of our lives.

How do I know?

Consciousness has tickled the brains of our greatest thinkers for thousands of years. Why did it develop? What’s the point? How did it appear? And why is it so hard to resist mitigating urges (like that second serving of insanely crispy fish and chips from the boat)?

And what exactly is consciousness?

It’s a little disconcerting that we don’t yet have an established definition. Broadly speaking, consciousness is a personal experience of the world, including our own existence. Mainly conceived in the 1890s, this broad outline of the concept leaves plenty of room for multiple theories.

Two ideas rule neuroscience, with worldwide efforts to combat them through carefully designed experiments. One is the Global Neural Workspace Theory (GNWT), which posits that the brain integrates information from multiple sources into a single “sketch” of data on a “global workspace”. This working space, knowing only the elements of our attention, forms a conscious experience.

In contrast, the other dominant theory, Integrated Information Theory (IIT), takes a more conjunctive view. Here, consciousness arises from neural architecture and the interconnection of brain networks. The physical and data-processing properties of neural networks, especially the back regions of the brain, can on their own generate consciousness.

Other theories dig deep into the complex web of neural connections, suggesting that information loops between brain regions, extended in time and space, generate consciousness. Some suggest that an awareness of “self” is essential to being aware of the outside world.

Yes, it’s a zoo of theories out there.

A hint of memory

The new theory drew on previous ideas and experimental data, arriving at a startling conclusion: that consciousness evolved as part of memory – in fact, it is the process of remembering.

Scientists have long associated consciousness with episodic memory, a “diary” of our lives encoded by the hippocampus. Intuitively, this makes sense: what we consciously experience is essential for forming “lifetime” memories, which associate different aspects of an event in time. But here the authors argue that consciousness works hand-in-hand with the brain’s memory networks, together forming a “conscious memory system” that gives rise to consciousness.

The team started with a disturbing thought: this conscious perception is incredibly slow and often tricks us. Take various auditory or visual illusions – the dress, anyone? – it is clear that our conscious perception is influenced by much more than reality itself. So why do we value consciousness as a means of perceiving, interpreting and interacting with the world?

The answer, the authors suggest, is memory. Consciousness may have evolved along with memory so that we can remember. Suppose you are walking through a familiar neighborhood and hear a bark. Within milliseconds, the bark passes into our working memory, a mental “sketchbook” for processing the data. There it acts as a cue to retrieve an earlier memory of the same bark and the face of an overzealous pup eager to bite ankles. At the rappel, you quickly cross the street.

Here, consciousness is an integral part of the whole sequence. Hearing the bark, i.e. perceiving it consciously, attracts memories to remember consciously. The brain then imagines what might happen (another pinch?), causing you to run away. Without the conscious awareness of the bark, we would not link it to potential danger or make an effort to circumvent it.

Okay, so what?

The bottom line, the authors explain, is that consciousness, as an essential part of memory, can help combine memory in flexible and creative ways to plan future actions. Or in their words, “there is no reason for consciousness to operate in real time.”

This means that instead of experiencing the world in real time, we may perceive our surroundings and internal thoughts as “memories”, as if we were seeing a night sky full of stars that, in reality, do not exist. maybe more. It also allows us to project ourselves into the future or reach the depths of creativity and imagination, sketching new worlds based on memory, but with new ways of combining these elements.

The brain is famous for its parallel processing abilities, and a lot of that happens under the hood. A conscious memory system makes sense of disjointed unconscious information, timestamping every bit so memories play out like a movie.

“Even our thoughts are usually not under our conscious control. This lack of control is why we can have difficulty stopping a stream of thoughts going through our heads when we try to fall asleep, and also why mindfulness is difficult,” Dr. Budson said.

By reframing consciousness as part of memory, the team hopes the theory can help patients with neurological disorders. People who have had a stroke that affects the cortex or surrounding neural highways often have a reduced ability to use their memories to solve problems or plan for the future. People with dementia, migraines or epilepsy also have disorders that cause disturbances in consciousness and memory, the two often being linked.

The authors are well aware that they are treading controversial ground. “Many – perhaps even most – of the assumptions we make may turn out to be incorrect,” they wrote. Even so, testing the theory experimentally can “move us closer to understanding the fundamental nature and anatomical basis of consciousness”.

Image Credit: Greyson Joralemon / Unsplash

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