Thursday, 13 September 2007

The evolution of memory in a paragraph

"Energy fell on an ancient cell; the cell registered. Some prodding set off a chemical cascade that incised the cell and changed its structure, forming a cast of the signals that fell on it. Eons later, two cells clasped, signalling each other, squaring the number of states they might inscribe. The link between them altered. The cells fired easier with each fire, their changing connections remembering a trace of the outside. A few dozen such cells slung together in a slowly moving slug: already an infinitely reshaping machine, halfway to knowing. Matter that mapped other matter, a plastic record of light and sound, place and motion, change and resistance. Some billions of years and hundreds of billions of neurons later, and these webbed cells wired up a grammar - a notion of nouns and verbs and even propositions. Those recording synapses, bent back onto themselves - brain piggy-backing and reading itself as it read the world - exploded into hopes and dreams, memories more elaborate than the experience that chiseled them, theories of other mind, invented places as real and detailed as anything material, themselves matter, microscopic electro-etched worlds within the world, a shape for every shape out there, with infinite shapes left over: all dimensions springing from this thing the universe floats in. But never hot or cold, solid or soft, left or right, high or low, but only the image, the store. Only the play of likeness cut by chemical cascades, always undoing the state that did the storing. Semaphores at night, cobbling up even the cliff they signaled from."

From The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, a novel about a Capgras sufferer; the hazy boundary between representation and reality; the limits of biological accounts of psychological phenomena; and the disintegration of an Oliver Sacks-like neurologist who made his name telling curious tales of brain-damaged patients. All set against the backdrop of the spectacular spring migrations of American Sandhill cranes.

Posted by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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