Thursday, July 02, 2009

Imagination, Memory and Age

Here's something for people—probably mostly those not still wet from crawling out of the egg—to think about. I'll comment on the significance of these studies at the end, but first let me present them in summary, with brief excerpts from the relevant pages. You can read the complete articles at the links provided.

First of all there's the article I cited the previous blog. Might want to refresh your memory on this (pun intended).

Then there is:

Having A Higher Purpose In Life Reduces Risk Of Death Among Older Adults

...Purpose in life reflects the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and be focused and intentional..

...Possessing a greater purpose in life is associated with lower mortality rates among older adults...

Lack Of Imagination In Older Adults Linked To Declining Memory

...the ability of older adults to form imaginary scenarios is linked to their ability to recall detailed memories...

...episodic memory, which represents our personal memories of past experiences, "allows individuals to project themselves both backward and forward in subjective time."...

...Therefore, in order to create imagined future events, the individual must be able to remember the details of previously experienced ones extract various details and put them together to create an imaginary event, a process known as the constructive-episodic-simulation...

Think Memory Worsens With Age? Then Yours Probably Will

...Thinking your memory will get worse as you get older may actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Researchers at North Carolina State University have found that senior citizens who think older people should perform poorly on tests of memory actually score much worse than seniors who do not buy in to negative stereotypes about aging and memory loss...

Imaging Pinpoints Brain Regions That 'See The Future'

...remembering the past and envisioning the future may go hand-in-hand, with each process sparking strikingly similar patterns of activity within precisely the same broad network of brain regions...

..."In our daily lives, we probably spend more time envisioning what we're going to do tomorrow or later on in the day than we do remembering, but not much is known about how we go about forming these mental images of the future," says Karl Szpunar, lead author of the study and a psychology doctoral student in Arts & Sciences at Washington University...

..."Our findings provide compelling support for the idea that memory and future thought are highly interrelated and help explain why future thought may be impossible without memories."...

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Most of this relates to 'older' people, but that makes sense, since they're the ideal subjects. Nothing works better than for decent scientific investigations into such things than to watch as things go wrong and how, especially if traits or capabilities disappear and such events can be linked to neurological phenomena; in this instance conditions connected to, for example, the hippocampus.

Summing it up in as few words as possible, it appears, strongly so, that imagination and memory are very strongly linked, if not basically the same thing. This is, in itself, a very important point from a purely philosophical perspective.

Of particular interest here is that we're mostly talking about 'episodic' memory and imagination. In other words, about mental narrative. One should also consider that 'purpose' in life is linked to all of this because 'purpose' is nothing but narrative about the larger context of one's existence and one's future existence.

I'll leave that stewing for a while, because I think readers can draw their own conclusions—which are fairly obvious and in-your-face, particularly with regards to what it actually says about the very nature of our memories and our very minds. I've maintained for a long time, with nobody really paying attention, that all explicit memory recall is either completely 'episodic'—meaning narrative—or at the very least framed in a context of narrative. In other words, whether we know it or not, but every time we remember anything at all, we tell a mental story in which the remembered item features prominently.

All other memory is 'implicit' and cannot actually be made explicit—or 'conscious', as some might put it—unless it is done, again, in the context of mental narrative. What connectionists refer to as 'associative memory' is actually misnamed, as it really should be called 'narrative memory'. Narrative isn't, as cognitive science would have it, just one incidental aspect of cognition and what we do with it. Narrative lies at the core of cognition and consciousness. It is the way these things work.

Narrative as 'story'—usually told in some form—is merely that form associated with the existence of some form of language; which, and I agree with Pinker in this, is by and large a tool of communication. It refers to 'internal' communication also. Language also imposes structure/constraints on certain categories and types of narratives that—in a swirling could around a center that we perceive as 'self', but which exists only in the same way that a 'center of mass' exists with regards to some physical body—constantly circulate in our brains. And when people say 'competing memes' they should be thinking of 'competing narratives', and a lot of things would become so much clearer. And our lives...well, they are, in a very real sense, stories, resulting from the interaction of our mental and physical contexts.

I have digressed. Something more practical:

Having read the articles above, and taking into account that use-it-or-lose-it is the absolute order of the day with just about everything physiological and cognitive, does it not suggest itself that, rather than training 'memory' to keep people alive—which is really boring; at least I think so; and besides, it produces a potentially unwelcome spin-off, namely too many irrelevant memories of really dumb bits of data—they should really be stimulated/encouraged to let their imaginations run free instead? It's so much more interesting and it has the desirable side-effect of training them to indeed have plans for tomorrow; by virtue of their capacity to create narratives for the future.

Ken Robinson has criticized the manner in which today's schools all over the world stifle creativity, courage to innovate and how they de-emphasize the value of 'imagination', favoring instead the learning of factual things; that is, committing things to memory, be they scientific facts or 'social norms', and thus making them into what is perceived, rather myopically and unimaginatively, as 'useful citizens'. With what I said above, is it not clear that the problem, which showed up by considering 'older' people, may actually spread into ever-earlier age groups over time?

In a population that is getting older—and in which, or so I hope, many of us alive today may actually achieve timely escape velocity and into a life of literally hundreds of productive years—is this not something that we should be acutely concerned about?

And, as a final thought, I just was reminded, by a programme on the radio, of the notion that the peak of creativity in many professions is considered to be achieved in a person's early years; typically in science you're talking 30-ish and in the arts 40-ish. I wonder how much—just like the memory loss myth alluded to in an article above–is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Actually I don't wonder at all.

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