Tuesday, May 05, 2009

You Are a Reaction

What is memory? And by that, I mean, what is it made of? If consciousness is a set of chemical and electrical reactions and impulses, memory itself must be nothing more than certain chemical compounds and reactions in the brain. Human memory is undoubtedly a material thing, stored in wet, slimy, material form.

It's beyond debate, but still feels strange, somehow. Perhaps because memory seems like such a ghostly, spectral thing -- appearing in visions in our dreams, in our minds as we recall faces, views, words. Memory -- like consciousness itself -- seems too elevated and ethereal -- too incorporeal -- to be nothing more than simple chemical compounds. In the end, everything is something -- as in something physical. My physics professors always used to lord it over their colleagues in biology and chemistry: because, in the end, everything boils down to physics. I guess the question is whether that is depressing or liberating.

Update 5/6/09: Better living through chemistry: BBC reports that scientists at the Alzheimer's Research Trust have had success with a drug that apparently reverses the effects of Alzheimer's disease by boosting the chemical processes involved in memory formation and retention.

5 comments:

Jose said...

if everything is material – boils down to something you're calling physics even though what we know about the world is like not a lot – then it makes no difference. if some things were material and some weren't, that would be ultimately depressing. because you would strain for one or the other. but if the condition of all is material, then material is just that: a condition. it's immaterial. ;-)

Octopus Grigori said...

Perhaps this is the depressing thing (and maybe it shouldn't be depressing): when we realize that memories are nothing but chemical compounds, we realize that they can be eliminated or erased from existence with other chemicals, or by simply removing the matter. We probably all know this, but it may be depressing to contemplate this.

A memory, an emotional connection, etc., is simply stored in a set of chemical chains. Wipe out the chains, and the memory is gone from the universe.

Octopus Grigori said...

Also, I agree with you that it is ultimately immaterial, but I imagine that is a pretty hard pill for more religious or spiritual people to accept. Not for all of them, but for most, I would guess.

Octopus Grigori said...

Recent news on drugs meant to erase memories (you've all seen this already).

Octopus Grigori said...

Finally, a word on why I say everything boils down to physics.

Biology studies life processes, behaviors, etc. All of this comes down to chemistry, chemical reactions, etc. Chemistry, at its most elementary form comes down to reactions at an atomic and subatomic level. At that level, the behavior of subatomic particles is governed by laws of electricity, magnetism, weak gravity-like forces, etc. That's all the realm of physics.

So to say everything comes down to physics is just to say that everything is made of small particles, which are in turn made of smaller particles, etc.: it's not saying a whole lot.

But the very basic and initial questions that govern all science -- why is there matter instead of no matter? why is there space? is there such a thing as time? -- are questions in the realm of physics, and not the other sciences.

Of course, mathematicians will say all physics is math, and everything boils down to math.