How do we remember? What do we try to forget? What do we forget without trying?
As in many areas of consciousness, sleep is a key.
Vladimir Nabokov was a formidable novelist, essayist and lepidopterist. He recognized evolutionary changes in butterflies decades before his colleagues. Yet he is better known as the author of “Lolita”, the story of a pedophile who’s secretive intelligence makes him an inventively untrustworthy narrator of his own life.
Like a lot of us.
Because our memories are made and remade, requiring continual remembering and forgetting.
Nabokov was fully aware of the inconsistencies of memory. Many writers enjoy telling stories to reveal “real truth,” the “higher reality” that may be masked by “mere facts.”
The brain tells stories to us, too. Lots.
For the brain edits memory. Much of that memory editing occurs in sleep, as two recent papers in Nature Neuroscience describe.
Not that Nabokov would have agreed. In “Speak, Memory” his autobiographical memoir we read his low opinion of sleep:
“Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals. It is a mental torture I find debasing… I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius.”
Yet this “mental torture” also provokes and provides for biological genius – the peculiar information processing by which thoughts become useful and whole.
Old Folks and Young Folks
The Nature Neuroscience papers that have gotten much attention recently emanate in part from the labs of Robert Stickgold and Matthew Walker, two very smart, entertaining researchers.
Paper 1 – The Secrets of Deep Sleep
Results – Two groups, one of students, the others of Medicare vintage, are asked to remember lists of nonsense word pairs. The younger group does better.
The two groups than proceed to sleep. The older group now does much worse than the younger – after a night of sleep. How badly they do correlates with how much deep sleep they obtained during the night, and decreased size and activity of different parts of the cortex.
What The Media Said This Meant
Old folks remembered a lot worse than younger folks. Those who had more brain damage did worse – because they couldn’t generate enough deep sleep.
What These Results Might Actually Mean
Old folks are not very good at remembering nonsense pairs. Their sleeping brains are particularly good at forgetting nonsense pairs.
We also know that older folks are inferior pole vaulters – compared to younger folks. That you don’t want your average 68 year old playing quarterback in the NFL.
Yes, older brains are different from younger ones. They rely far more on expert systems – patterns put into other patterns that create useful knowledge. Younger brains rely more on “brute force” processing – and are better at it – just as they are at basketball. The way they answer a math problem is totally different from that of older folks.
Presumably we’re shocked to learn about these “mere mental” differences because we don’t see them in action – as we can observe athletic performance. We’d be a lot more shocked to see all the brain processes that are not cognitive – not put in a verbal form or conscious awareness – like how we really manipulate three dimensional space or fight off the next flu virus.
Most of what the brain does is not part of conscious intent. It’s kind of like dark energy and dark matter. We’ve belatedly recognized that’s 96% of the universe. It’s time to recognize a similar portion of brain activity is unconscious and unknown – and as a result unstudied.
Which may include reasons why older brains are not as good at remembering nonsense pairs.
As to slow wave sleep proving the answer to better memory, these researchers are well aware this is a simplistic response. Though deep, slow wave sleep is critical to our thinking and memory, precisely how remains elusive. In the future they will try to see if increasing slow wave sleep makes people better at remembering nonsense pairs – and other tasks.
Drug companies can’t wait to find out – especially the ones that make sleeping pills that supposedly increase slow wave sleep.
The Uses of Sleep
In paper #2, Stickgold and Walker theorize what role sleep plays in memory.
Very reasonably, they believe sleep helps “tag” important and unimportant data. It sifts it, remembers the stuff that previously seemed to be useful, puts it together with the new stuff – then dumps much of the rest.
It remembers and forgets – to survive.
Which is characteristic of what we call human intelligence, and particularly that “useless” human activity called art.
Enormous amounts of data comes in. We can’t remember it all.
We don’t want to.
Just like a novelist, a poet or a painter, our brains sift information. We edit. We abstract. In the past century, abstraction has been recognized as one of the most beautiful formats of art.
It was all along. Look at the work of the earliest “artists”, the Ice Age sculptors and painters. What was beautiful 40,000 years ago is equally beautiful today.
And like many professional artists, we recognize that the truth is not just “the facts.” In our brains the facts are constantly remade and rejiggered in memory, much of the rejiggering occurring in sleep. There we create the knowledge “narratives” we need to survive – physically, mentally, and spiritually.
For that is what brains – human and otherwise – do. They process information. They evolve it. The make biological information progressively more useful. That helps us survive and adapt to changing environments – particularly our mental ones.
It’s not just our immune memories that change. So do our personal ones – our autobiographies and identities.
Information constantly reconstructs and evolves. Just like the “untrustworthy” narrators of Nabakov’s stories and novels, the brain reconstructs the past, creatively embellishing and diminishing facts that we need, want, dislike or can’t use.
The process is so deep, so compelling, so important to our survival that we find it profoundly satisfying.
And that may be the beginning of what we call beauty.
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