Musical Memory


            As a performer, I am sometimes asked, “How do you remember all those words?”  My response is, “I don’t have to remember all of the words. I just have to remember the next word.”


            If remembering a song is a matter of the previous word/phrase triggering the next one, what begins the process? Songs aren’t just words. They are words, melody, musical accompaniment, and circumstances of particular performances of the song. All of these trigger emotional responses and other associations, each of which can in return trigger the memory of the song.


            During a song memory experience in the brain, I suppose there is a recognizable pattern of neurons firing that represents the song with subtle differences depending on many things including sensory input in the present. This pattern is temporal. A snapshot of brain activity might be a picture of a word or a letter or a consonant depending on the exposure time of the picture. 


            Though the song itself is “played” in the brain in real time, it doesn’t exist in the brain as static data the way it would on a flash drive. I guess it might exist as a tendency for certain paths to be taken, but even that is too simple. There have to be many levels of patterns possible in order to accommodate the vast number of song memories accumulated through years of living and memorizing. In the brain that is not remembering, where is the memory? I don’t think we know. I don’t want to make too much of this because there are lots of things (e.g. theories) we don’t “know” that are effectively true in the sense that they draw relatively confining boundaries around where the truth can be found. There is no doubt that the brain and the laws of physics contain the information of memory and all other thought processes.


            Still, there is a philosophical point of interest here. If memory is always temporal and each memory is made up of many linear slices of associations each triggered by the previous one and triggering the following, what begins the process and what ends it? Why doesn’t the end of a memory trigger the beginning of another, and we just live remembering all the time? I’m sure that tendency increases as we get older and there are more and more memories so that the end of one DOES tend to begin another, but except in pathological individuals, we are able to break free and recognize the present sensory input. I also suppose that current sensory input generally takes precedence by some rule of brain operation, but that doesn’t solve the whole problem.


            Sometimes we decide to choose between remembering and experiencing the present or between remembering this or remembering that. So how do we decide? Since the brain is a reductionist machine, where is free will?


            One scenario would give a kind of momentum to a thought process in the brain.  This momentum is strong for a consistently reinforced memory like a song that is sung or heard many times. At the end of the song, the momentum falls and other stimuli compete for attention. Usually one (e.g. current sensory input) clearly wins. But what if the balance of competition is really even? Clearly, this balance can’t last long. Everything changes and in a short time, one input is sure to beat the others. But there must be finite periods of time where no decision is made, when the balance is perfect.


            Neurons fire at a quantum level. There is a random factor that always exists. It is possible and plausible that quantum events are involved in decision making. Static balance is not a stable condition in a temporal world, certainly not one in which quantum uncertainty exists. 


            The time scale of neuron activity, let alone a quantum event, is much smaller than that of human consciousness. It has been shown that events in much greater time scales are rationalized in conscious thought in ways that are convenient rather than factual. The idea that the mind would interpret micro rebalancing of brain inputs as “free will” is not a great leap.


            But I don’t think this is all. I think free will is a valid and vital part of our lives.  The difficulty is that we can postulate reasonably that macro events, such as conscious decisions, are connected to micro events in the brain. This argues that the micro events control the macro, and there is no free will.


            I think that this misses the point. We live at the time scale of consciousness. We cannot in our time scale effectively use micro events to affect our time scale except in the grossest ways. We can induce smells, visions, memories, immediate responses, but to think that we could develop a neuron level program to cause a person to carry out a career change over a ten-year period for example, is just not reasonable.


            Besides, why bother? Psychologists know how to perform mind control using macro level stimuli just fine.


            In a sense what I am saying is that we are delusional. The world we apprehend is largely in our own minds. We avoid solipsism because we do recognize the objective existence of others and of our environment; we just don’t experience either directly. All is filtered through our minds. We use our interactions with others to arrive at a consensus of reality that has enough common points to allow us to interact successfully, that’s all.


            So, the question of free will is simple. In our shared delusional universe, we can control our actions. The facts don’t matter because that’s not part of our world. If you tell me the facts say I don’t control my actions, I will decide whether to agree with you, argue with you, walk away, or punch you in the nose. Your experience will depend on what decision I make. (With a caveat about ordinary psychological mind control.)


            In this world of ours what matters is what works. We can like it or not, but because we participate in a consensus reality, we can’t change it by ourselves.


            Here is what I believe. First, any event in the world can potentially be explained by the laws of the world. No higher power is required. Second, everything that we are is in this world. Third, we will never understand more than a small part of the fundamental reality of the world. There’s too much, and it’s too removed from what we experience. (This seriously diminishes the usefulness of my first belief above.) Fourth, it doesn’t matter, because in our shared delusional world there are shared articles of faith that work for everything in this world. All of us use them, some more consciously than others. Taken together, these articles are the foundation of our shared reality.


            Finally, these articles of faith evolve over time. This evolution is not uniformly experienced, so the boundaries of our reality are always fuzzy and full of discord.


            For example, it is not hard for me to believe that the laws of magic worked at one time for some populations of the world. Julian Jaynes’s book “The Origin of Consciousness…” gives examples of how completely different realities could have existed in cultures only a millenium ago. If one of us were dropped into one of those cultures, we would probably see the modern explanations, but if we were truly observant, we would also see that for that culture, their explanations worked just fine. If we stayed long enough, we would probably have a hard time avoiding using those explanations in order to facilitate day to day life.


            It’s possible to believe that the growing interpersonal connections through world wide communications is creating an ever more stable consensus of the world—or not, if we are successful in only communicating with those who agree with us. I don’t think we’ll ever get really stable in any case, but I guess more stable is better.


            In the meantime, enjoy all the songs.



Hugh Moffatt

Pullman, Washington

December 16, 2007