03 Mar Images in Thinking
Memory is a subjective thing. Will we ever be able to teach a computer what is memorable in art, music, literature or cinema? A great illustration of memory’s subjectivity is the song from Gigi entitled, “Ah, yes, I remember it well.” In the song’s lyrics, a woman and a man recount mutually experienced events as if one of them were either absent or not paying attention. It offers a vivid dramatization of a phenomenon we are all familiar with – memory dims or is embellished over time. This phenomenon is complemented by what Erdelyi (1992 – below) calls hypermnesia – the ability of subjects to remember more after certain types of mental exercises. There are great web systems such as Lumosity, AskMen and BrainMetrix designed to help this.
The specific types of mental exercises that proved useful in helping subjects remember more tend to be associative. The results of the studies in this area coincide with the associationist model and the anecdotal experience of many practitioners in memory enhancement. Hypermnesia suggests that the models of frequency and exposure do not require people to be directly exposed to a bit of information more intensely or more frequently if they simply work on using associations to remember the content (Erdelyi, 1985).
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Memory and Association
The physical component of association consists of the cerebral cortex and interconnections between neurons, as covered in Sections 1 and 3 of this blog. As you might recall, Section 1 explored the distinct but related roles of different areas of the brain and correlating layers within those areas, while Section 3 discussed the role of interaction between neurons in passing excitation and inhibition among the huge numbers of neurons in the brain. These earlier explorations showed that growth and change in the human neural network consist of two things:
- shifts in chemical balance to increase the level of excitation or inhibition at existing links or synapses; and
- growth of dendrites and spines to form new or redundant links.
The brain’s hardware is fundamentally associative at the micro (between neurons) and macro (between major areas) levels. So what does this have to do with memory? Since remembering in the physical apparatus is a process of establishing or strengthening physical connections, the idea that meaning-bearing logical connections arise, is naturally appealing. In the associative model, we learn and remember not in a vacuum, but in the context of things, or patterns of things, previously established in our memory. This is the core of the philosophy governing my work. Where, though, is the starting point?
The concept of artificial neural networks, which have been designed from the beginning for this very purpose, will be explored in more depth in Section 7.
Thinking and remembering in Images
Thinking begins with perception. We have talked about the human senses of hearing and touch as well as vision. As Dennett points out in Consciousness Explained, vision is “the sense modality that we human thinkers almost always single out as our major source of perceptual knowledge, though we readily resort to touch and hearing to confirm what our eyes have told us” (Dennett, 1991, pp.55-56).
Aristotle, too, stresses the importance of images in the thinking process: “In the case of sense, clearly the sensitive faculty already was potentially what the object makes it to be actually; the faculty is not affected or altered…To perceive then is like bare asserting or knowing; but when the object is pleasant or painful, the soul makes a quasi-affirmation or negation, and pursues or avoids the object…To the thinking soul images serve as if they were contents of perception…That is why the soul never thinks without an image” (On The Soul , Book III, Chapter 7). The “stickiness” of things we learn through visual experience seems to be profound, and, for many, form the core of cognitive processing of anything related to the images, even when the associations are tenuous or abstract.
Howard Gardner, noted psychologist and learning theorist at Harvard University, has proposed a theory of multiple intelligences built on the idea that people have different strengths. Gardner believes that a key to learning more information more quickly is to capitalize on individual strengths, such as kinesthetic learning or thinking in images. (Gardner 1985)
Do the images below evoke a response in you? If not, you are not like me! I’m not saying whether that is good or bad. But images evoke responses in me.
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