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Memory as Triage: Facing Up to the Hard Question of Memory


The Hard Question of memory is the following: how are memory representations stored and organized so as to be made available for retrieval in the appropriate circumstances and format? In this essay, I argue that philosophical theories of memory should engage with the Hard Question directly and seriously. I propose that declarative memory is a faculty performing a kind of cognitive triage: management of information for a variety of uses under significant computational constraints. In such triage, memory representations are preferentially selected and stabilized, but also systematically modified and integrated into generalized, model-like representational structures. Further, I propose a hybrid theory of remembering, which takes into account both the nature of the cognitive processes underlying remembering and the norms that govern representational success in relevant cognitive/epistemic contexts.

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  1. 1.

    See Fine 2014; Sorensen 2018. All references to Plato are quoted from the Complete Works, edited by Cooper 1997.

  2. 2.

    See Ebert 1973, Fine 2014, Westbury and Dennett 2000, Chappell 2017 etc.

  3. 3.

    The intended contrast is with lost external objects, which may be encountered accidentally in the search (cf. Chappell 2017).

  4. 4.

    In this essay, I will sometimes use ‘recollection’ and ‘recall’ interchangeably. While there are important differences between these notions - they usually refer to two distinct kinds of remembering - these differences are not relevant for my purposes.

  5. 5.

    I will frequently use ‘item’ to refer to internal content-bearing memory representations. I borrow this terminology from the psychological literature.

  6. 6.

    cf. Dennett (2018a, p.3): “The general answer to the hard question... is ‘Almost anything can happen!’ Our conscious minds are amazingly free-wheeling, open-ended, protean, untrammeled, unconstrained, variable, unpredictable...Omni-representational.” Dennett, of course, focuses on consciousness. My Hard Question of memory is modeled on his Hard Question of consciousness.

  7. 7.

    The example is borrowed from Anderson 2007, pp.100–102

  8. 8.

    In this essay, I deal exclusively with declarative memory. On the standard accounts, declarative (or explicit) memory is a kind of long-term memory that involves the encoding, storage and retrieval of information and supports the remembering (typically: conscious recollection) of events, experiences and facts (Schacter and Tulving 1994; Eichenbaum 2004). It is to be contrasted with procedural memory - a kind of long-term memory that does not involve the manipulation of information/representations and is expressed through performance (Schacter and Tulving 1994). In the essay, I assume that declarative and procedural memory are different in kind. For skepticism about this view, see De Brigard (2019).

  9. 9.

    While the article includes Michaelian's (2016a) simulation theory of memory in the mainstream, I take this theory to be importantly different from the RF theories listed here.

  10. 10.

    e.g. Bernecker 2010, pp. 26–30. Incidentally, what makes a mental state occurrent turns out to be an exceptionally difficult question. For the fascinating details, see Bartlett 2018.

  11. 11.

    e.g. Bernecker 2008, Ch.8; Hopkins 2012

  12. 12.

    Consolidation is the process of transformation of, initially malleable, memory representations into a more stable, long-lasting form (see Dudai et al. 2015; Squire et al. 2015). See also section 3.3.

  13. 13.

    I will use ‘faculty’ and ‘capacity’ interchangeably.

  14. 14.

    The Causal Theory is not the only “remembering first” theory that makes errors of commission and omission of the relevant kind. Here I have chosen it primarily because it is the most developed, and intensively studied, theory. It is my belief that a similar analysis can be applied to other RF theories. While this certainly issues a promissory note, I provide many reasons in the main text, which suggest why we should expect to find similar problems with other relevantly similar theories.

  15. 15.

    More carefully: there may be a set of causally connected representations, which carry the relevant content from encoding to retrieval. See Martin and Deutscher 1966; Bernecker 2010. For causal theories that do not posit content-bearing memory traces, see Perrin 2018 and Werning 2020.

  16. 16.

    On these views, traces of distinct memories are not stored independently; rather they are superposed in the same set of neural connections. See, for example, McClelland and Rumelhart 1985, p.160: “We do not keep each trace in a separate place, but rather we superimpose them so that what...memory contains is a composite”. In the formation of such composites, some/many of the distinguishing details of the individual representations are lost. As a result, there are no traces with unique content-preserving causal histories. See Robins 2016 for details. Also see section 3.3.

  17. 17.

    In reconsolidation, previously stabilized memory representations are reactivated and return to a malleable state during new experiences (for details, see Nader and Einarsson 2010).

  18. 18.

    Two issues are worth underscoring here. First, this proposal is not uncontroversial in the (psychological) literature. As an anonymous referee rightly points out, other theorists have suggested different computational problems that memory systems must solve. The account offered in this section is a hypothesis, which integrates evidence from a variety of sources in an attempt to highlight some foundational problems in philosophical theories and contribute to the project of uncovering cognitive/memory kinds. Second, the characterization of the computational problem(s) may be seen as too broad. My response is three-fold. (a) It is arguable that the explanandum phenomenon (declarative memory) is itself very broad. This capacity will likely turn out to be supported by a set of widely distributed cognitive systems/mechanisms that contribute to the solutions of the highlighted relevance problems (b) The proposed account is intended as an opening salvo in the characterization of these systems. It does not aim to fully individuate them, a task which (as I say in the main text) necessitates investigation of their design principles, processes and representational formats. (c) Even at this level of generality, the proposal affords criticism of RF theories of the kind sketched in the previous section. I take this to be one of the main insights of the essay. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for bringing these issues to my attention.

  19. 19.

    See Brainerd et al. 1990; Anderson 2007; Stickgold and Walker 2013

  20. 20.

    ‘When’ is chosen for elegance here. In reality, as I have argued in the main text, there are a variety of computational costs/constraints. Time is only one of them. Please keep that in mind.

  21. 21.

    Note: for ease of exposition, I sometimes speak of ‘memories’ and not of memory ‘items’ or ‘representations’. Importantly, I do not consider memory items/representations to be actual memories. For a discussion of this distinction, and its relevance, see Dudai 2012

  22. 22.

    \( \overline{\mathrm{H}}' \) refers to the negation of the hypothesis that a particular memory will be needed.

  23. 23.

    This would require “follow[ing] people about their daily lives, keeping a complete record of when they use various facts” (Anderson and Milson 1989, p.705).

  24. 24.

    In the words of Schooler and Anderson (2017): “Sitting behind some of the most robust regularities in human memory, there are equally robust regularities in the environment” (p.270).

  25. 25.

    For the third important limitation - the assumption of immutability of memory ‘items’ - see below.

  26. 26.

    As an anonymous reviewer helpfully points out, the rational analysis approach has resources to accommodate differences in value between memory items. I agree. I nevertheless think that the task of accounting for the kinds of regularities outlined in the main text is yet to be carried out.

  27. 27.

    From ‘totally irrelevant’ (1) to ‘extremely relevant’ (5)

  28. 28.

    For a critical discussion of the limitations of the survival processing paradigm, see Kazanas and Altarriba 2015.

  29. 29.

    The causal theory, again, is a good exemplar. On CTM, the individuation of memory representations occurs upon the original experiencing of the relevant events. Memory then (passively) stores such representations, often from encoding to retrieval (for a good analysis, see Aronowitz 2019).

  30. 30.

    On the standard model, consolidation involves the re-organization and increase of the distribution and complexity of memory representations in neo-cortical regions (cf. Dudai et al.; Squire et al. 2015). There are now some important theoretical alternatives to the standard model, including multiple trace theory (Nadel et al. 2000), the transformation hypothesis (Winocur and Moscovitch 2011) as well as scene construction theory (Barry and Maguire 2019)

  31. 31.

    This result suggests that the improvement in the participants’ memory for the shared features is not due to the loss of information about the unique/distinguishing features.

  32. 32.

    The coding mechanisms also support ‘remapping’ in different contexts. See Ekstrom and Ranganath 2018.

  33. 33.

    Map-like representations embed structural knowledge about the domain in the (geometric) relationship between different states in the multi-dimensional cognitive spaces. The “geometric constraints on cognitive spaces”, then, allow inferences about never-experienced stimuli (Bellmund et al. 2018, p.1). This affords significant cognitive flexibility. See also Eichenbaum 2004.

  34. 34.

    Recently, some theorists have challenged the claim that memory (necessarily) involves storage, in any strong sense (see, e.g., De Brigard 2014; Hutto and Peeters 2018; Werning 2020). This development raises an interesting question: can the Hard Question be stated without referring to memory storage? While a detailed analysis is well beyond the scope of this essay, I think the answer is positive. The Hard Question, in its most general form - what happens between the original experience and the act of recall/recollection? - needs to be addressed even by theorists skeptical of the idea of storage. Indeed, both ‘minimalists’ (Werning 2020) and ‘enactivists’ (Hutto and Peeters 2018) have to tell some story about the processes/mechanisms that make appropriate recall/recollection possible. Of course, the stories put forward by these theories will probably be of a different kind than the one I offer here. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for pointing me to this interesting question.

  35. 35.

    I take epistemically relevant processes to be processes which generate information relevant to a subject’s knowledge or beliefs. See Sequoiah-Grayson (2016).

  36. 36.

    e.g. Storing immutable memory representations, which are not integrated into models of the world, do not allow rememberers such flexible access. I take this to be one of the main lessons of this essay.

  37. 37.

    One concern is that the ease of compatibility is a result of the generality with which the computational problem is couched (see note 18). Even if that is the case, the point here is that the proposal affords criticism of RF theories that can be stated without commitment to any controversial view about the proper function of memory systems. I take this point to be independent of the endorsement of function pluralism. I am thankful to a referee for prompting me to add this clarification.

  38. 38.

    I take the prospects for such a theory to be dim. There are a variety of reasons for this, but one stands out. There are kinds of remembering errors - recognized as such in both folk and scientific psychology - which do not seem to involve the malfunctioning of memory systems. Some errors, like the ones elicited in the DRM or misinformation experimental paradigms, are indeed sometimes taken to be indicative of the systems’ proper function - what the systems are really doing (see, e.g., De Brigard 2014). Yet, there is a familiar epistemic sense in which these nevertheless are errors, a fact which memory scientists haven’t failed to recognize. As Craver (2020) points out in a recent essay, much of the science of memory has been framed by reference to conditions such as accuracy, with the role of remembering in (social) epistemic practices as “the touchstone against which our scientific measures must be calibrated” (p.275). Given this calibration, even the most fervent of revisionists have been reluctant to eliminate such conditions, despite the difficulties they’ve had developing a reductive account of remembering errors (see Michaelian 2016a, 2016b). I am indebted to an anonymous referee for prompting me to explore this issue, a detailed treatment of which is, of course, beyond the scope of this essay.

  39. 39.

    These points touch upon a lot of important but difficult questions, not the least important of which pertains to the prospects of the “method of cases” and the nature of conceptual analysis/engineering. More on these in a future paper.


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Special thanks to the Grenoble Centre for Philosophy of Memory for organizing the inaugural Essay Prize. For invaluable help with the manuscript, I am also grateful to Steven Gross, Ian Phillips, Palmer Gunderson, Maegan Kaczmarek, Katie Brophy, two anonymous referees, and to audiences at the Workshop on the Philosophy of Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroethics (Buenos Aires, 2019) and the Hammond Society at Johns Hopkins University.

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Andonovski, N. Memory as Triage: Facing Up to the Hard Question of Memory. Rev.Phil.Psych. 12, 227–256 (2021).

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