Modern Understanding of Memory
Neurology and Psychology have been working with memory from many years. Despite coming forth with remarkable revelations, they have not been able to fathom memory comprehensively. Since enumerating all the details propounded by these sciences is beyond the scope of the present study, we only provide a succinct summary.
The human brain has many areas that respond to various stimuli related to our senses. Memory connected with the senses resides in these areas. One can infer this by the loss of memory connected with a specific sense when the corresponding region in the brain suffers damage. Generally, the brain is thought of as constituting two primary parts: the left and right hemispheres. While the left hemisphere deals with logic, reasoning, and analysis, the right concerns itself with feeling, emotion, and intuition. These two hemispheres function with cooperation to carry out all intellectual and emotional activities. Further, the limbic system is a superset of structures in the brain and is the seat of emotions. It works in connection with the frontal and temporal lobes, which are associated with memory.
Memory’s position cannot be exactly located within the brain; it is dynamic, in that it is scattered across various regions and is relative to stimulus. A special cell called neuron communicates with other cells through signals transmitted in the form of electrochemical waves. A cell that receives this ‘synaptic’ signal responds in various ways: it gets excited, repressed or modulated otherwise. The passages of connection between neurons form neural networks, which shape our perception of the world.
Memory is usually defined as the mental capacity to retain and recall information. Although it includes the abilities of both retention and recall, modern science tells us that mind has a greater capacity to store experiences as compared to recalling them. Subjecting an individual to electric shocks clinically triggers his memory for a limited time, but this procedure has an undesirable effect on health. Chemical interventions can restore memory for longer periods. Abnormal degeneration of brain cells, head injury, smoking, cardiovascular problems, nutritional deficiency, lack of sleep, old age, and depression are some of the causes for memory loss. A person who has a healthy lifestyle and who engages himself with intellectual activities does not usually suffer from acute memory loss.
‘Can human memory be artificially enhanced and enriched?’—this question has piqued the interest of legions of scholars over the centuries. While some scholars say yes, others emphatically negate such a possibility. Western scholars who bat for the former opinion bank on Psychopharmacology, which has grown into a veritable industry in recent times. Āyurveda lists a few rāsāyanas (of the Brāhmī origin) and ariṣṭas (such as Sārasvata) that can improve memory. Various other systems of medicine such as Unani and Homeopathy have their own drugs that supposedly help augment memory. While these medicines can curb the degeneration of memory in case it suffers damage, they cannot greatly enhance it; more importantly, they have nothing to contribute to the playing out of memory in Avadhānam. C V Subbanna, the well-known Telugu Śatāvadhānī, says none of this is true. Our experience in this regard is the same. Medicines can at best make our body and mind composed so that we can grasp things clearly and comprehensively. They can never improve memory.
Types of Memory
Two types of memory are usually identified: short-term and long-term. Short-term memory is that whose span is a few seconds. Evidently, it is stored in very few pockets in the brain. Scholars say that its range can be enhanced with rigorous practice. Both its effect and longevity are limited, since it offers no room for logical reasoning that reinforces memory. In its highest reaches, short-term memory takes the shape of photographic / eidetic memory, which is the capacity to retain information in great detail for a few seconds. This works best with acoustic data when compared to visual inputs. Further, it is over and above the logical frame of cause and effect and is largely seen in children. Eidetic memory diminishes with the development of logical thinking and increase in mental preoccupation. Absentmindedness and lack of concentration account for the diminished efficaciousness of this faculty. Only a few adults are said to have this sort of memory; they are more an exception than the rule.
Long-term memory is reinforced with logical reasoning and naturally has a greater span. One must regularly dwell on the object of retention in order to enhance this type of memory. One of the prime reasons for memory loss is getting distracted during the process of grasping information. A piece of information gathered with mental composure is most likely to last long. Although it is extremely difficult to achieve mental composure during Avadhānam, performers must consciously train themselves for it. Even an object that starkly resembles the one to be currently consumed is a distraction; it hinders memory. One should remain alert, sort away distractions, and grasp the intended information alone. Sub-varieties of long-term memory—mainly the episodic and semantic types—play an important role in the present context.
At times we wilfully forget certain events. This is particularly evident in the case of sad episodes that we want to erase from memory.
It is beneficial to analyse long-term memory in terms of its content-based nature. An object or event stays in our memory for a long time only in the form of gist and not specific details. The import remains, while the body of details fades. For instance, a movie that we fondly watched a decade ago stays in our memory only as a ‘story,’ perhaps with a sketchy trace of a few scenes. In this sense, the outer contours of information dim with time, while the inner core remains, albeit in an amorphous form.
Memory and Sleep
The abstract of a recent research article succinctly summarizes the connection between memory and sleep. We quote it in extenso:
Over more than a century of research has established the fact that sleep benefits the retention of memory … Whereas initial theories posed a passive role for sleep enhancing memories by protecting them from interfering stimuli, current theories highlight an active role for sleep in which memories undergo a process of system consolidation during sleep. Whereas older research concentrated on the role of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, recent work has revealed the importance of slow-wave sleep (SWS) for memory consolidation and also enlightened some of the underlying electrophysiological, neurochemical, and genetic mechanisms, as well as developmental aspects in these processes. Specifically, newer findings characterize sleep as a brain state optimizing memory consolidation, in opposition to the waking brain being optimized for encoding of memories. Consolidation originates from reactivation of recently encoded neuronal memory representations, which occur during SWS and transform respective representations for integration into long-term memory. Ensuing REM sleep may stabilize transformed memories.
Modern research also posits that sleep helps erase unwanted information from our system. In a way, we sleep to forget the unimportant things we learn every day. Overload of information makes the synapses between neurons in the brain grow at an alarming rate, thus generating a lot of ‘noise.’ When we sleep, apparently, “our brains pare back the connections to lift the signal over the noise.”
Virtual Memory and Artificial Intelligence
In modern times the computer has revolutionized society and, in the process, transformed the way in which we perceive memory. Modern man has the advantage of carrying in his pocket whole terabytes of information. And hence his memory, although virtual, is limitless. The advent of search engines has made the task of ‘recalling’ a child’s play.
Thanks to Artificial Intelligence (AI), machines can now mimic cognitive and emotional functions that were hitherto held to be strictly human faculties. Machines achieve this with the help of clearly defined techniques that are mathematically sound. Such a process can turn into a hindrance and prove ineffective while dealing with human activities that rely on intuition. To get past this problem, scientists are trying to invoke heuristic methods and rope in the nuances of associative memory for which the human brain is unique.
With technology progressing at the speed of light, we can never know where all this will take us. Many scientists and humanitarians of repute have expressed concerns about the ‘existential risk’ that AI can engender.
In humans, the process of cognition does much more than merely gathering information; it influences our behaviour. There is an organic relationship between the bodily and mental functions in our species. The human brain has many ‘networks’ that individually pick up bits of information and exchange them amongst themselves to bring about complete comprehension. Thousands of neural pathways should work in tandem in order to grasp even a tiny piece of data. The term ‘associative memory,’ seen in this light, means so much more than its lexical definition. This process is doubtless consistent (and predictable) to a fair extent, but thanks to the innate complexity and meta-logical nature of human interiors, every individual has his own unique capacity and technique of grasping and retaining information.
All kinds of objects are basically abstract, varied, and referential. Memory supplies them to the chain of thought, at the end of which they become concrete and generalized. An example serves to make this clear: the thought of a cow can be triggered by absolutely anything connected with it—milk, curds, horns, ghee, tail, grass, cowherd, beef … the list is practically endless. Not stopping at producing the image of a cow in our minds, these entities can also bring to mind many other things that we might not directly relate to cattle—fragrance of a sweet-dish prepared with ghee, the sound of a bell that is usually tied around a cow’s neck, hike in the price of dairy products, debate on cow slaughter, leather goods, a memory of being attacked by a bull, and so on.
Upon superficial analysis, there seems to no connectivity among these. But there is. The speed with which the connection is established in our mind makes it immediately ungraspable. Each thought is a product of multiple flashes of connection. A flash of this sort helps a performer to come up with poetic ideas during Avadhānam. Since we are usually concerned with thoughts and their swiftness and not so much with their procedure, we fathom the process of thinking as an instantaneous one.
Having conducted a brief survey of memory and retention as it is understood in the East and the West, we now proceed to analyse memory’s bearing on Avadhānam.
 Avadhāna-vidya (Telugu), p. 78
Rasch, Björn, and Jan Born. “About Sleep's Role in Memory.” Physiological Reviews, vol. 93, 2 (2013): 681-766. doi:10.1152/physrev.00032.2012