Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives
By Dean Buonomano
Hardcover, 310 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List Price: $25.95
The Memory Web
I've been in Canada, opening for Miles Davis. I mean . . . Kilometers Davis. I've paraphrased this joke from the comedian Zach Galifianakis. Getting it is greatly facilitated by making two associations, kilometers/miles and Canada/kilometers. One might unconsciously or consciously recall that, unlike the United States, Canada uses the metric system, hence the substitution of "kilometers" for "miles," or, in this case, "Miles." One of the many elusive ingredients of humor is the use of segues and associations that make sense, but are unexpected.
Another rule of thumb in the world of comedy is the return to a recent theme. Late-night TV show hosts and stand-up comedians often joke about a topic or person, and a few minutes later refer back to that topic or person, in a different, unexpected context to humorous effect. The same reference, however, would be entirely unfunny if it had not just been touched upon.
But what does humor tell us about how the brain works? It reveals two fundamental points about human memory and cognition, both of which can also be demonstrated unhumorously in the following manner:
Answer the first two questions below out loud, and then blurt out the first thing that pops into your mind in response to sentence 3:
1. What continent is Kenya in?
2. What are the two opposing colors in the game of chess?
3. Name any animal.
Roughly 20 percent of people answer "zebra" to sentence 3, and about 50 percent respond with an animal from Africa. But, when asked to name an animal out of the blue, less than 1 percent of people will answer "zebra." In other words, by directing your attention to Africa and the colors black and white, it is possible to manipulate your answer. As with comedy routines, this example offers two crucial insights about memory and the human mind that will be recurring themes in this book. First, knowledge is stored in an associative manner: related concepts (zebra/Africa, kilometers/miles) are linked to each other. Second, thinking of one concept somehow "spreads" to other related concepts, making them more likely to be recalled. Together, both these facts explain why thinking of Africa makes it more likely that "zebra" will pop into mind if you are next asked to think of any animal. This unconscious and automatic phenomenon is known as priming. And as one psychologist has put it "priming affects everything we do from the time we wake up until the time we go back to sleep; even then it may affect our dreams."
Before we go on to blame the associative nature of memory for our propensity to confuse related concepts and make decisions that are subject to capricious and irrational influences, let's explore what memories are made of.
Until the mid-twentieth century, memory was often studied as if it were a single unitary phenomenon. We know now that there are two broad types of memory. Knowledge of an address, telephone number, and the capital of India are examples of what is known as declarative or explicit memory. As the name implies, declarative memories are accessible to conscious recollection and verbal description: if someone does not know the capital of India we can tell him that it is New Delhi. By contrast, attempts to tell someone how to ride a bike, recognize a face, or juggle flaming torches is not unlike trying to explain calculus to a cat. Riding a bike, recognizing faces, and juggling are examples of nondeclarative or implicit memories.
The existence of these two independent memory systems within our brains can be appreciated by introspection. For example, I have memorized my phone number and can easily pass it along to someone by saying the sequence of digits. The PIN of my bank account is also a sequence of digits, but because I do not generally give this number out and mostly use it by typing it on a number pad, I have been known to "forget" the actual number on the rare occasions I do need to write it down. Yet I still know it, as I am able to type it in to the keypad — indeed, I can pretend to type it and figure out the number. The phone number is stored explicitly in declarative memory; the "forgotten" PIN is stored implicitly as a motor pattern in nondeclarative memory.
You may have trouble answering the question, What key is to the left of the letter E on your computer keyboard? Assuming you know how to type your brain knows very well which keys are beside each other, but it may not be inclined to tell you. But if you mimic the movements while you pretend to type wobble, you can probably figure it out. The layout of the keyboard is stored in nondeclarative memory, unless you have explicitly memorized the arrangement of the keys, in which case it is also stored in declarative memory. Both declarative and nondeclarative forms of memory are divided into further subtypes, but I will focus primarily on a type of declarative memory, termed semantic memory, used to store most of our knowledge of meaning and facts, including that zebras live in Africa, Bacchus is the god of wine, or that if your host offers you Rocky Mountain oysters he is handing you bull testicles.
How exactly is this type of information stored in your brain? Few questions are more profound. Anyone who has witnessed the slow and inexorable vaporization of the very soul of someone with Alzheimer's disease appreciates that the essence of our character and memories are inextricably connected. For this reason the question of how memories are stored in the brain is one of the holy grails of neuroscience. Once again, I draw upon our knowledge of computers for comparison.
Memory requires a storage mechanism, some sort of modification of a physical media, such as punching holes in old-fashioned computer cards, burning a microscopic dot in a DVD, or charging or discharging transistors in a flash drive. And there must be a code: a convention that determines how the physical changes in the media are translated into something meaningful, and later retrieved and used. A phone number jotted down on a Post-it represents a type of memory; the ink absorbed by the paper is the storage mechanism, and the pattern corresponding to the numbers is the code. To someone unfamiliar with Arabic numerals (the code), the stored memory will be as meaningless as a child's scribbles. In the case of a DVD, information is stored as a long sequence of zeros and ones, corresponding to the presence or absence of a "hole"burned into the DVD's reflective surface. The presence or absence of these holes, though, tells us nothing about the code: does the string encode family pictures, music, or the passwords of Swiss bank accounts? We need to know whether the files are in jpeg, mp3, or text format. Indeed, the logic behind encrypted files is that the sequence of zeros and ones is altered according to some rule, and if you do not know the algorithm to unshuffle it, the physical memory is worthless.
The importance of understanding both the storage mechanisms and the code is well illustrated in another famous information storage system: genes. When Watson and Crick elucidated the structure of DNA in 1953, they established how information, represented by sequences of four nucleotides (symbolized by the letters A, C, G and T), was stored at the molecular level. But they did not break the genetic code; understanding the structure of DNA did not reveal what all those letters meant. This question was answered in the sixties when the genetic code that translated sequences of nucleotides into proteins was cracked.
To understand human memory we need to determine the changes that take place in the brain's memory media when memories are stored, and work out the code used to write down information. Although we do not have a full understanding of either of these things, we do know enough to make a sketch.
Excerpted from Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dean Buonomano. Copyright 2011 by Dean Buonomano. Reprinted with permission of W. W. Norton & Co.