A&O READING – EXCERPT: “The Nature of Memory” from “The River of Consciousness” (Sacks 2017)



EXCERPTS from The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks[i]

        The nature of memory occupied Freud from first to last. Aphasia he saw as a sort of forgetting, and he had observed in his notes that an early symptom in migraine was often the forgetting of proper names. He saw a pathology of memory as central in hysteria (“Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences”), and in the Project he attempted to explicate the physiological basis of memory at many levels. One physiological prerequisite for memory, he postulated, was a system of “contact barriers” between certain neurons—his so-called psi system (this was a decade before Sherrington gave synapses their name). Freud’s contact barriers were capable of selective facilitation or inhibition, thus allowing permanent neuronal changes that corresponded to the acquisition of new information and new memories—a theory of learning basically similar to one that Donald Hebb would propose in the 1940s and which is now supported by experimental findings.

        At a higher level, Freud regarded memory and motive as inseparable. Recollection could have no force, no meaning, unless it was allied with motive. The two had always to be coupled together, and in the Project, as Pribram and Gill emphasize, “both memory and motive are psi processes based on selective facilitation…memories [being] the retrospective aspect of these facilitations; motives the prospective aspects.”*6

        Thus remembering, for Freud, though it required such local neuronal traces (of the sort we now call long-term potentiation), went far beyond them and was essentially a dynamic, transforming, reorganizing process throughout the course of life. Nothing was more central to the formation of identity than the power of memory; nothing more guaranteed one’s continuity as an individual. But memories shift, and no one was more sensitive than Freud to the reconstructive potential of memory, to the fact that memories are continually worked over and revised and that their essence, indeed, is recategorization.

        Arnold Modell has taken up this point with regard to both the therapeutic potential of psychoanalysis and, more generally, the formation of a private self. He quotes a letter Freud wrote to Fliess in December 1896 in which he used the term Nachträglichkeit, which Modell feels is most accurately rendered as “retranscription.” “As you know,” Freud wrote,

I am working on the assumption that our psychic mechanism has come into being by a process of stratification, the material present in the form of memory traces being subjected from time to time to a rearrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances—a retranscription….Memory is present not once but several times over…the successive registrations representing the psychic achievement of successive epochs of life….I explain the peculiarities of the psychoneuroses by supposing that this translation has not taken place in the case of some of the material.

        The potential for therapy, for change, therefore, lies in the capacity to exhume such “fixated” material into the present so that it can be subjected to the creative process of retranscription, allowing the stalled individual to grow and change once again.

        Such remodelings, Modell feels, not only are crucial in the therapeutic process but are a constant part of human life both for day-to-day “updating” (an updating which those with amnesia cannot do) and for the major (and sometimes cataclysmic) transformations, the “revaluations of all values” (as Nietzsche would say) which are necessary for the evolution of a unique private self.

        That memory does construct and reconstruct, endlessly, was a central conclusion of the experimental studies carried out by Frederic Bartlett in the 1930s. Bartlett showed in these, very clearly (and sometimes very entertainingly), how with retelling a story—either to others or to oneself—the memory of it is continually changed. There was never, Bartlett felt, a simple mechanical reproduction in memory; it was always an individual and imaginative reconstruction. He wrote,

        Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience, and to a little outstanding detail which commonly appears in image or in language form. It is thus hardly ever really exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of rote recapitulation, and it is not at all important that it should be so.

        Since the last third of the twentieth century, the whole tenor of neurology and neuroscience has been moving towards such a dynamic and constructional view of the brain, a sense that even at the most elementary levels—as, for example, in the “filling in” of a blind spot or scotoma or the seeing of a visual illusion, as both Richard Gregory and V. S. Ramachandran have demonstrated—the brain constructs a plausible hypothesis or pattern or scene. In his theory of neuronal group selection, Gerald Edelman—drawing on the data of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, of embryology and evolutionary biology, of clinical and experimental work, and of synthetic neural modeling—proposes a detailed neurobiological model of the mind in which the brain’s central role is precisely that of constructing categories—first perceptual, then conceptual—and of an ascending process, a “bootstrapping,” where through repeating recategorization at higher and higher levels, consciousness is finally achieved. [and see William James–note below] Thus, for Edelman, every perception is a creation and every memory a re-creation or recategorization.

        Such categories, he feels, depend on the “values” of the organism, those biases or dispositions (partly innate, partly learned) which, for Freud, were characterized as “drives,” “instincts,” and “affects.” The attunement here between Freud’s views and Edelman’s is striking; here, at least, one has the sense that psychoanalysis and neurobiology can be fully at home with one another, congruent and mutually supportive. And it may be that in this equation of Nachträglichkeit with “recategorization” we see a hint of how the two seemingly disparate universes—the universes of human meaning and of natural science—may come together.


*6 The inseparability of memory and motive, Freud pointed out, opened the possibility of understanding certain illusions of memory based on intentionality: the illusion that one has written to a person, for instance, when one has not but intended to, or that one has run the bath when one has merely intended to do so. We do not have such illusions unless there has been a preceding intention.

.NOTE:   “… but concepts flow out of percepts and into them again, they are so interlaced, and our life rests on them so interchangeably and undiscriminatingly, that it is often difficult to impart quickly to beginners a clear notion of the difference meant. Sensation and thought in man are mingled, but they vary independently.” (“Some Problems of Philosophy” by William James;  pp 47)

Read the Essay


[i] Sacks, Oliver (2017) The River of Consciousness. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. (Kindle Locations 1082-1165).

NOTE: “… concepts flow out of percepts and into them again, they are so interlaced, and our life rests on them so interchangeably and undiscriminatingly, that it is often difficult to impart quickly to beginners a clear notion of the difference meant. Sensation and thought in man are mingled, but they vary independently.” …   ““The intellectual life of man consists almost wholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes.”  (William James, Some Problems of Philosophy)