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

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

Sitting on the Marine Atlantic ferry, I watch the skyline of Newfoundland disappear on the horizon as I type away. I see the rolling ocean waves, breathe in its salty breeze, feel and hear the hum of a rumbling ship’s engine. I’m trying to focus on writing this sentence, but my eyes are hopefully scanning the ocean for a rogue splashing whale.

According to new paper in Cognitive and behavioral neurology, these sights, smells and sights are just memories, even though I feel they are happening in real time. A team from Boston presented a new theory of consciousness that is inextricably linked to memory.

In short: At its core, consciousness evolved as a memory system. It helps us recall the events of our lives—when, where, what, and who—which in turn can help us creatively and flexibly recombine them to predict or imagine alternative possibilities.

It gets more amazing. Instead of perceiving the world in real time, we actually experience the memory of that perception. That is, our unconscious minds filter and process the world under the hood and often make split-second decisions. When we become aware of those perceptions and decisions—that is, when they rise to the level of consciousness—we actually experience “memories of those unconscious decisions and actions,” the authors explained.

In other words, the unconscious mind is mostly behind the wheel.

Thanks to the enormous parallel computing power in biological neural networks – or neural circuits – much of the brain’s processing of our environment and inner feelings takes place without our awareness. Consciousness, in turn, acts as part of our memory to help connect events into a coherent, serial narrative that flows over time—instead of disjointed dream snippets.

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

For now, the theory is just that – a theory. But looking at consciousness through the lens of the 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 animals, AIand mini brain consciousnesshelping neuroscientists further examine how the conscious and unconscious brain work together every second of our lives.

How am I aware?

Consciousness has tickled the brains of our greatest thinkers for thousands of years. Why did it develop? What is it good for? How did it come about? And why is it so hard to resist the urge to choke (like that second helping of incredibly crispy fish and chips off the boat)?

And what actually is consciousness?

It’s a bit confusing that we don’t have a set definition yet. Generally speaking, consciousness is the personal experience of the world, including our own existence. Mostly conceived back in the 1890s, this broad sketch of the concept leaves plenty of room for multiple theories.

Two ideas reign in neuroscience, with global efforts to fight 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 workspace, which has knowledge only of the items in our attention, forms conscious experience.

In contrast, another mainstream theory, Integrated Information Theory (IIT), takes a more associative view. Here, consciousness emerges from the neural architecture and interconnections of brain networks. The physical and data-processing properties of neural networks—especially the posterior regions of the brain—can themselves create consciousness.

Other theories dig deep into the complex network of neural connections, suggesting that informational loops between brain regions, extended in time and space, create consciousness. Some suggest that awareness of the “I” is essential to awareness of the external world.

Yes, it’s a zoo of theories.

Dash of Memory

The new theory drew inspiration from previous ideas and experimental data, arriving at a surprising conclusion: that consciousness evolved as part of memory—in fact, it is a process of memory.

Scientists have long associated consciousness with episodic memory, the “diary” of our lives encoded by the hippocampus. Intuitively it makes sense: what we consciously experience is key to the formation of “lifetime” memories, which connect different aspects of events 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 creates consciousness.

The team began with a troubling thought: that conscious perception is incredibly slow and often misleads us. Create various auditory or visual illusions—a dress, anyone?—it’s clear that our conscious perception is influenced by much more than reality itself. So why do we value consciousness as a way of perceiving, interpreting and interacting with the world?

The answer, say the authors, is memory. Consciousness may have evolved along with memory so that we can remember. Let’s say you’re walking through a familiar neighborhood and hear barking. In milliseconds, the cortex moves into our working memory—a mental “sketchbook” for data processing. There it acts as a cue to recall the previous memory of the same bark and the face of an overzealous puppy eager to bite ankles. When you remember, you quickly cross the street.

Here consciousness is absolutely integral to the whole sequence. Hearing the bark—that is, consciously perceiving it—attracts memories for conscious recall. The brain then imagines what might happen (another bite?), prompting you to run away. Without conscious perception of the bark, we would not associate it with potential danger or try to avoid it.

Okay, so what?

The bottom line, the authors explain, is that consciousness, as a critical part of memory, can help flexibly and creatively combine memory to plan future actions. Or in their words, “there is no reason that consciousness should operate in real time.”

This means that instead of experiencing the world in real time, we may be experiencing our surroundings and inner thoughts as “memories” – like seeing a night sky full of stars that are no longer there in reality. Furthermore, it allows us to project into the future or reach into the depths of creativity and imagination, sketching new worlds based on memory, but with new ways of combining those elements.

The brain is known for its parallel processing capabilities, and most of that happens under the hood. The memory system of consciousness makes sense of disjointed unconscious information, time-stamping each bit so that memories roll like a movie.

“Even our thoughts are generally not under our conscious control. This lack of control is why we can have difficulty stopping the stream of thoughts that run through our heads while trying to fall asleep, and also why mindfulness is difficult.” he said dr. Budson.

By reframing consciousness as part of memory, the team hopes the theory can help patients with neurological disorders. People with strokes that affect the cortex or surrounding neural pathways often have a reduced ability to use memories to solve problems or plan for the future. People with dementia, migraine or epilepsy similarly have disorders that cause disturbances in consciousness and memory, and the two are often linked.

The authors are well aware that they are getting into it controversial basics. “Many—perhaps even most—of the hypotheses we propose may turn out to be incorrect,” they wrote. Even so, experimental testing of the theory can “bring us closer to understanding the fundamental nature and anatomical basis of consciousness.”

Image credit: Greyson Joralemon / Unsplash

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