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Life, experience, and consciousness are constantly changing and moving. How much we are aware of at each moment is rather limited; but we have the ability to understand our present consciousness because what we have learned from prior experiences has been retained in our memory. Without memory we would helplessly face a barrage of new and unrecognizable impressions; nothing would have meaning, and we could only react to these stimuli by automatic instinct.
Memories, retained in the subconscious from where they can be recalled to consciousness at will, remind us of things when triggered by similar or associated experiences, and assist us subconsciously in recognizing new experiences that are related to the past. Memory is a primary function of the natural self, which records the impressions of experience according to their perceived significance. Memories vary greatly in strength, availability, and association patterns. All experience exists forever in the omniscience of Spirit, but most impressions fade rapidly from the subconscious into the unconscious. For most practical purposes the unconscious is inaccessible except through extraordinary spiritual investigation which is not a memory process. However, the line between the unconscious and the subconscious is fuzzy, and the subconscious contains varying degrees of what many psychologists call the “unconscious.” The memories that do return to consciousness are still a very small portion of the total subconscious of the person.
All consciousness is experienced in the present, whether it be sense perceptions or thoughts and feelings about the past or future. These experiences simultaneously impress themselves on our consciousness and the biochemical cells of our bodies. Thus the perceptions from our senses and our feelings and thoughts reverberate as energy patterns through our nervous system and especially in the brain at the same time they are vibrating in our consciousness. In this space-time process each impression exerts energy-matter for at least a portion of a second in various parts of the body and brain.
To separate one impression from another is an arbitrary selection. Yet the conscious self does this by directing its attention and sometimes even focusing attention in concentration, though some impressions seem to grab attention because of their immediately perceived importance in relation to the whole consciousness at that moment. The conscious self may be absorbed in a sequence of thoughts and memories, reflecting on a current mood, listening to the sounds of the environment, looking around, scratching a leg, etc.; very often the conscious self shifts back and forth between various impressions. Those that are able to capture attention become most conscious while the other concurrent impressions are subconscious. Because the impressions are either enduring or at least vibrate momentarily, the conscious self is able to scan them and decide which to give its attention. Thus often attention follows the immediate impression, although the trace of it still remains. This attention or noticing of something is the beginning of memory.
Impressions given attention usually leave enough of a trace in the consciousness and brain that they can be remembered for about one-half minute; this has been called short-term memory. The average capacity of the short-term memory is about seven chunks of information at a time, though a chunk can be as complex as a short series of numbers, a word, phrase, or any unified impression. Impressions that do not receive concentrated attention by their original importance or conscious recall during this short period tend to fade rapidly into the vagueness of the overall experience and are forgotten as distinct entities.
The impressions that are given special attention immediately or are recalled to mind for reexamination within a few seconds are receiving mental processing which can strengthen their traces enough so that they become a part of the long-term memory. How do these processes work? What characteristics enable us to retain these memories?
All of the factors are subjective to the consciousness of the individual and are psychological in nature. Thus the strength of the original impression implies not only how intense is the perception, feeling, or thought, but also how significant it is to that person. Significance implies that it relates to other memories that are important also or it relates to other memories in a significant way. Intensity can be caused by the vividness and uniqueness of the sense perceptions, the depth of the emotional response, and the interest of the cognition, or any combination of these. Cognitive interest, for example, can be due to dissonance, confirmation, appropriateness, insightfulness, strangeness, etc.
As soon as the experience makes a strong impression, consciousness is already processing, extending, and even altering the original impression. Yet these processes are original experiences making their impressions also. In other words, consciousness relates each impression to others in efforts to integrate the information.
Association is the process whereby consciousness compares aspects of the impression to people, events, things, concepts, feelings, etc., all of which have been previously retained in the memory. These comparisons are based on similarities and differences regarding a multitude of characteristics. These associations interconnect these memories, strengthening old ones that are recollected and providing new ones with a complex framework in connection with which they are likely to be recalled in the future.
Retention is not a mindless, mechanical process. On the contrary, the consciousness is thinking and feeling and continuing to perceive during this process. Thus evaluation by means of our emotional feelings and cognitive value system also greatly colors these memories. Rational thought attempts to organize the information so that it can be meaningfully recalled.
Repetition strengthens retention. Each time we remember something, that part of the memory that we do recall becomes strengthened. Nevertheless memories that are not recalled for many years can still be recovered as long as they were sufficiently retained originally.
Forgetting naturally occurs for memories that are not well-retained or consolidated in the memory fairly soon, and weaker impressions also fade with them. However, forgetting can also be caused by psychological blocks, or what Freud called repression. In these cases, people have some motive for not wanting to remember in order to hide certain information from themselves. Also, suggestions not to remember can be placed in the subconscious, as in hypnosis or if a conscious self programs the natural self to forget it. Such memories are usually not forgotten at all; rather their recall has been blocked by conscious or subconscious wishes. These repressed memories can be recovered by psychoanalysis or some other psychotherapy or spontaneously by an opening of consciousness.
We consciously use memories by actively recalling them at will, by passively recognizing them when we are reminded of them by experience, and by facilitating the relearning of the same or similar information or behaviors. The most effective memories are those that we can actively recall simply by focusing our attention in their direction; these memories are directly accessible to the conscious self and could be considered part of the conscious mind. The use of these memories by conscious recall keeps them strong and effective. Such memories also tend to be spontaneously recalled whenever we recognize something similar or related to them. These memories may or may not be accurate or appropriate to the situation, and we must be careful not to let these mental habits or grooves tyrannize our mind and prevent us from perceiving and thinking about each new situation with clarity. Memories are our tools, not our masters.
Recognition occurs when experience stimulates a memory by its similarity. This assisted recall helps to strengthen those memories by awakening them. If we are not actively interested in something, these memories still may not ever be consciously recalled for our purposes but may remain latent in the passive memory. Frequent recognition may convert other memories into the availability of conscious recall. For example, the first few times we read or hear a new vocabulary word, we are unlikely to begin using it ourselves unless we are particularly motivated to do so or consciously practice how we might use it. Recognition is based not only on similarity to a situation but also on associations with it. For instance, a flagpole may remind us of flags and our country, or our school where we used to raise a flag, or of a phallic symbol, etc. depending upon our previous experience and our current mind set. Psychoanalysis uses word association in order to probe the mind of a patient. In Plato’s dialogs Socrates uses this concept of recognition to explain how the soul relearns what it already knows from its divine omniscience but has forgotten in its entrance into the body. Recognition enables us to understand something we have already experienced and integrated into our minds without necessarily recalling the circumstances of the previous experiences. Thus consciousness is able to synthesize knowledge and lessons from direct experience and study without the burden of having to consciously recall all the details.
Relearning is re-cognizing something similar to what has been in the mind before. Thus relearning a subject we have previously studied is easier and more rapid than learning a completely new subject. Similarly behaviors can be retrained faster than the original training. Because of space-time, nothing is really identical to anything else. Although there are similarities between present experiences and memories, there are always differences. While our consciousness recognizes some of the similarities, the differences provide new learning experiences. Thus memory provides a solid foundation of knowledge upon which learning can build. Interference can occur if the mind confuses the similarities and differences between memories and new experiences. For example attempting to learn two new languages at the same time, alternating back and forth, will tend to bring confusion between the two where they are similar. On the other hand such a comparative study may have cognitive benefits in spite of the memory difficulties.
Memory is not just mental but emotional and physical as well. In fact the depth, sensitivity, and relatedness of emotional and physical experiences are major factors in how well we remember anything. Furthermore new situations not only remind us of previous cognitive activity but also of previous feelings and behaviors. The memorized behavior patterns of the mind, emotions, and physical body have been called habits. Habit can be distinguished from autonomic responses, which are basically reflexes. Habits are formed by a combination of instinctive needs, subconscious tendencies, and the originally conscious choices of learning and training which with repetition soon become subconscious. In other words the body remembers how to behave in similar situations. The earlier the learning occurs and the more often it is repeated the stronger the habit. Walking is learned as a one-year-old child and is practiced regularly after that. Unless we are obstructed by an injury or something unusual in the environment, we do not have to think about how to walk. It is habitual; we need only watch where we are going, and subconsciously we make the adjustments needed for the environment.
Training and conditioning can develop these habits because our physical system is able to remember from past experience what to do and how to make specific adjustments for the variations of each situation. Conscious attention is used to form a habit or to change an old habit to a new pattern. Changing conditioned responses can be a struggle because the mind, brain, and cells of the body must remember to perform the new response over the previous memories of the old, thus the special need for conscious effort. For a while the two responses may rival each other; when the new conscious purpose relaxes, the old habit pattern may slip in during familiar circumstances. These subconscious memories and behavioral habits are held and performed by the natural self. The conscious self is responsible for the training of the basic self and the conscious choices of retraining. Natural selves are like servants who will do what they are told if they have been trained well and know what to do; but if they are confused about their tasks, they will tend to do what they want, which may be whatever conditioning seems strongest to them or what is instinctive. Instincts can strengthen or conflict with habits. Most of the energy of instincts will tend to flow into the most available behaviors, which are usually the habitual ones.
Many emotional memories and habits are socially conditioned in relation to natural instincts. The child is fed and given affection and learns to associate these good feelings in the memory. Children are trained and taught with rewards and punishments which are both physical and emotional. Toilet training, for example, teaches us to feel good when we do the right thing and to feel bad when we make a mess. Simple gestures and expressions like smiling or frowning become habitual behaviors of the emotional memory. Thus we discover that our emotional patterns have been programmed into us by the conditionings of our environment and how we have chosen to respond to them. We remember what hurts and what we feel we were punished for as well as what we feel gives us pleasure and rewards. Thus even a thought can stimulate our memory and cause us to feel an emotion. Changing these emotional habits of the natural self can be very difficult, requiring much understanding, self-knowledge, and conscious effort. Mental habits are even more subtle, but they do not seem to have the raw power of the emotions. Mental habits can best be changed by concentrated study or spiritual techniques.
Habits enable the natural self to handle routine situations so that our conscious self can be free to focus on other concerns. Nevertheless we are responsible for our habits. Because they can be difficult to change once formed, the wise do not develop habits that are harmful to ourselves or others. The conscious self is responsible for monitoring habits and breaking free from them when they are not appropriate.
LIFE AS A WHOLE:
II. The Individual