Remember the Old Days?

Along with my passion for science (say it with me, “SCIENCE!” Don’t you feel awesome now?), I have a passion for history. I love history books (yes, really) and history podcasts, and nothing is cooler than when Mr. SiT takes me to see historical stuff (well, ok, unless we’re going to a Natural History museum, those make me pretty hot, too). So when I talk about the Olden Days, I’m not just talking about the 1920’s. Sometimes I’m talking about the 1530’s (Tudors ROCK), or 1805 (Napoleon was pretty awesome), or even the era of the Byzantine Empire (why doesn’t anyone ever get my references to Justinian?).
The machinations of the governments are not the only thing that is interesting to me. I love hearing about the way that people in history viewed aspects of science. Many of the biological processes and physical processes were always considered part of “science”, though sometimes the processes of the human body were lumped under medicine, and classified differently. What I find really interesting is the way the ancients (and not so ancients) thought about what we now call neuroscience. The inner workings of the mind, and how it can change, learn, remember, and screw up. Of course, ancient thinkers then did not think of the mind and brain as working together. Rather, the mind and the soul were lumped together, and didn’t reside in the brain. They resided…somewhere else. Sometimes it was the pineal gland, sometimes the passions were in the liver, and of course there’s the heart, which has held everything from love, to anger, to jealousy, and everything in between.
Of course many of the things they thought turned out to be incorrect. But you never know, probably a lot of the things we think right now will end up being incorrect. But many of the ideas of the ancients are stunning in their clarity and logic, and most of them still affect us today.
And so, in this post, Scicurious polishes up her rusty little Bachelor’s in Philosophy, and has a go at one of the most ancient texts in the history of Psychology, “On Memory and Reminiscence” by Artistotle, circa 350 BCE. (From Classics in the History of Psychology)

A Note on Aristotle
As far as anyone can tell, Aristotle lived from around 384 BCE to around 322. He is most famous for being the student of Plato, and for being a famous thinker in his own right. He was also the tutor to Alexander the Great, which would be something to make you famous no matter what else you did.
Aristotle is most famous in the world of Philosophy, though he also wrote on botany, poetry, theater, music, government, physics, and zoology. Obviously, this guy wrote a LOT, and most of his stuff probably hasn’t even survived to the present day. But one thing that did survive (among many) his Aristotle’s work on Memory. As far as we can tell, the Greeks were the first to write on the subject of memory, to ask why it occurs and how. Aristotle wrote an entire treatise on this, and some of his ideas are actually still relevant in psychology today.
On Memory and Reminiscence
The first thing that Aristotle wants to do is to distinguish between remembering and recollecting. Most of us would look at that and go “what? they’re the same thing!”, but they weren’t at all to the ancient Greeks. He also wants to make it clear that memory must refer only to the past, and thus only animals with a sense of time can remember or recollect. This makes absolute sense, though unfortunately there’s no real way to prove that certain animals (such as, say, a planeria) have a sense of time, let alone whether that sense of time is conscious.
Aristotle distinguishes memory as being something relating to an object or presentation of a fact. You remember things that you have perceived before. He describes it as “a state of [perception or conception] conditioned by the lapse of time”. The act of remembering implies that time has passed, and links a thought to a previous perception. Remembering, for him, was not about knowing so much as it was about recognition. You look at an equation, say, and think “I know this, I’ve learned this”. You have to perceive something consciously in order to remember it. And even then, your memory is not of the object itself, but of your perceptions of it (which is a concept that goes back to Plato’s cave). For an example, let’s think of a cup. When you think of the cup at a later time, you don’t remember the cup itself, you remember instead what you thought about it, that YOU saw it.
How do these memories form? Aristotle talks about “sensory stimulation” (such as sight) leaving an impression on your mind, as someone would when using a stamp to make a seal in wax. And the cool thing is, his concept is not far wrong. Sensory stimulation does leave an “imprint” on the brain, but not in the form of a seal. Instead it’s in the form of slightly changed neurons and synapses, which will fire when presented with the object that you have seen before.
Of course then he goes on to say that impressions are why children and the elderly have crappy memories. He says that children are in a state of flux because they are growing so rapidly, and so their minds are flowing, like melted wax, and too unstable to put a seal on. In contrast, elderly people have minds that are too hard and set in their ways, and the seal cannot leave an impression and glances off. Aristotle also thinks this is why people who are too “quick” or “slow” have bad memories, their mental wax is too soft or hard to leave an impression on. If you’re too slow to perceive, an impression will never get there, and if you are too quick moving on to something else, there will be no time for an impression to form.
But your memory of an object is not just the impression you had from the object itself. It could also be a memory of what that object represents. Take a photo, for example. I look at a photo, and I remember a photo that I saw, but I also remember that the picture in the photo is my friend. The photo, and the memory, are a mnemonic for what they relate to, in this case my friend. So I remember not only the sense perception, but the likeness in the photo and who it relates to. In my opinion this gets dangerously close to recollection, and may be too close to really just call it memory.
Recollection is a little harder to define, and relates to memory. Recollection cannot exist without the memory of an object or fact, you have to know that you have seen something before. Aristotle defined recollection as a path or series of movements to get you from one memory to the memory you wanted. Ever have that problem where you can’t remember someone’s name (this happens to me a lot at conferences)? You stand there and go “dang! it was the guy who did all that cool work with serotonin 1B receptors and cocaine self-administration…”, and you link that fact to “he presented a talk at the last conference I was at…”, and link that to “and he met me and though my work was cool…”, and then a face pops into your head, and a second later, the name. The path, the seies of movements that you took from one memory to the next, is what Aristotle defines as recollection.
So why do some types of recollection (that guy at the conference) take so long, while others (thinking of something my friend said last week) take you no time at all? Aristotle claims that the mind becomes used to moving in certain patterns which occur with high frequency. You think about your friend far more often than you think about the guy you met at that conference. So your mind gets used to moving in patterns relating to your friend, and recollection occurs faster. There is actually a behavior that corresponds to this (sort of), called perseveration. I saw a cool example of this in a video the other day with a monkey and some treats.
The monkey gets three boxes. They have different symbols on the top, a blue smiley, a yellow lemon, and a red cherry. In one of the boxes is a treat. First, you put the treat in the cherry box all the time. It only takes a few tries for the monkey to figure it out, and after a very short time, he won’t even try the other boxes, instead he goes straight for the cherry box and take out the treat almost before you saw him do it. The monkey’s brain has learned to recollect very quickly because the path is taken very often.
Then, *poof*, change up the experiment. The treat is now in the blue smiley box. The first time, they monkey doesn’t get it. The second time, he slowly reaches for the cherry box, he doesn’t think it’s there anymore…but maybe…and he’s disappointed again. Only after several trials and disappointments will he check around in the other boxes. The monkey was suffering from perseveration, where his mind is still used to going in a certain pattern, and it takes a while to change it.
Recollection also involves context in a way that pure memory does not. When Aristotle says you have a memory of something, such as a cup, all you really have is recognition. It takes recollection to fill in the when you saw it and where. So it is possible for someone to have a good memory, without being good at recollecting.
Aristotle claims that recollection is only for humans, but I disagree. A dog, for example, can make the movements required to infer something from previous experiences. When the dog hears “sit”, he recognizes the word, and from there is capable of making the movement to “the last time I heard that word, I put my butt on the ground”, to “I got a treat!”, and the dog can then act upon the inference that if he sits again, he will get a treat again. It’s the ability to move between various memories which constitutes recollection.
So you can see that many of Aristotle’s ideas aren’t old and gone. His ideas on how memories are formed, though simplistic, provide the first ideas for the neural networks that we now study, only instead of an impression in wax, we make changes in the signalling of neurons. His ideas on recollection as a series of movements from memory to memory are still true today, represented as patterns of neuronal firing, and his thoughts on recollecting as a habit (recollecting faster things that you think about most) are pretty spot-on. See what you can learn from history?
Of course, he also thought that people with drawfism had bad memories because they had too much weight resting on their “sense organs”. Ok, maybe he did get it wrong once in a while…

7 Responses

  1. I loved this post! I too am very interested in how people in the past,ordinary people perceived the world around them.
    What podcasts do you listen to?
    I have been looking for a good one.

  2. Hi Scrabcake! I listen to a TON of podcasts, actually. You can see list of some of my podcasts here, though I’ve now added Napoleon 101, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, My History Can Beat Up Your Politics, and The History of Rome, all of which I got via iTunes. Do you have any recommendations? I’m always looking for more! Greek and Roman history would be a special bonus, and a really good one on ancient Chinese philosophy would be amazing…

  3. I wonder if the distinction in the two kinds of memory is preserved somewhat in modern Romance languages by the different verbs for “to know.” In Italian “conoscere” and in French “connaitre” mean to know in the sense of “being acquainted with,” while in Italian “sapere” and French “savoir” mean to know a fact or to know how to do something. In Italian, in the passato prossimo tense, conoscere means “met” and sapere means “found out.” It seems to me that “conoscere” and “connaitre” are more about recollection, while “sapere” and “savoir” are more about memory. Any Spanish speakers out there?

  4. Same thing in Spanish: saber vs conocer

  5. OK, I happen to know that Scicurious has several years of Latin under her virtual belt. Any insights?

  6. Oh yikes! I don’t remember any of my Latin! Just enough to get me by in science.
    “Memoria” is memory, hence “in memoriam”.
    Recollect is from the latin “recollegere” which is “to gather”. I’m surprised that they seem so dissimilar from the “latinate” languages. I could be after the wrong translation, though.
    Interestingly, though, Sci- as a prefix is “to know”. So “scicurious” is being curious to know. Though I picked my handle for other, more silly reasons.

  7. Dame Frances Yates is considered the “dean” of memory scholarship– she linked Aristotle’s memory works thru to the 15th-16th century alchemists.
    More accessible work is “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci” about a Jesuit who went to China.
    The memory trainers always advise that you should create an absurd image in your mind to remember something. For example to rmember someone’s name, you would picture them waearing a red plastic clown nose, or standing on a chair afraid of a mouse. Why is that?

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