Memory Trace and its Discontents

Memory Traces have been implicated under psychoanalytic theories, and are designated as the root cause of psychopathology, and behavioral issues.

I have been thinking about about memory traces over the last few days, trying to conceptualise them, define them, and understand what the term entails. Finally, after several hours of thinking thru, and reading, I decided to define and conceptualise them.

“A memory trace is the neural change that accompanies a mental experience at one time (time 1) whose retention, modification or otherwise, allows the individual later (at time t2) to have mental experiences of the kind that would not have been possible in the absence of the trace.” (Endel Tulving)

Even though it may be an impoverished record of the past and an unreliable guide into the future, the memory trace isn’t a mere residue in the brain, for it carried within itself a recipe, or a prescription for the future (Tulving)

What this means, is that when we define memory trace as a change process, it is no longer an entity but a relationship that defines the differences between two physical entities – the brain states at time t1 and at time t2, separated in time. The difference does not exist anywhere other than in our minds.

Being an electrical engineer thru education, I am tempted to define the term memory trace in terms of an electrical circuit.  Imagine two electrical voltages standing side by side, at d1 and d2, separated by distance d. When the circuit is closed, there exists a voltage difference between this plates, represented by V2-V1 (where V2 > V1). Th emagnitude of this voltage differnece determines the intensity and magnitude of the current that flows thru the circuit between teh plates.  The space between the plates represents a resistance. The greater teh resistance, the more intense would be the flow of electricity. If the space between the electrodes is connected by a low resistance wire, the electricity will flow easily.

The scenario can now be transferred to psychic reality. Imagine the brain – with all its neural conectivity, and brain state, at time T1. Now imagine the same brain after a passage of time, at time T2. The difference between brain state at time T1, and at time T2 is analogous to the electrodes. Except in teh case of brain, the electrodes (brain states actually) are separated not in distance, but in time.

Just like voltage difference exists between the plates separated by a distance D, the memory trace exists in time between two mental states separated in time by time T.

Just like its electrical counterpoint, where the magnitude of voltage difference is dependent on the difference between the individual voltage of each plate separated from each other in space d1 and d2, the strength of the memory trace is contingent on the differences between the mental states separated by time t1 and t2.

The voltage difference is not a physical entity – but simply a number that designates difference in voltage. In the same way memory trace is not a physical entity. It can be simply envisioned as a psychic relationship between the two brain states that designates their physical states across time.

The higher the voltage difference, the greater the flow of electrons (current) between the plates. Similarly, the magnitude of the difference in the mental states at time t1, and t2, also must dictate the intensity of the memory traces. If the brain states at t2 is not very different from the brain state at time t1, then the memory traces would be weak, plastic and easily modifiable. However, if there exists some trauma that makes the mental state at time t2 to be very dissimilar to mental state at time t1, then the memory traces of such a change would be etched in the psyche, and would guide all future action.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainity principle applies to the electrons carrying information across the plates, and it must apply to the electrons making up the neural transmission that creates specific brain states across time.

What is most interesting, and I will not dwell on it for too long, is that if past present and future actually co-exist, and it is only our humanity that prevents us from “seeing” them co-exist, then the memory traces are the link between the past and the present, and possibly into the future, and are therefore much much much more like the paths created by voltage differences.  Imagining such a path brings a whole new meaning and context to developmental psychology !

Nature doesn’t have a lot of cards to play, does it ? It has a few melodies that it repeats, leading to such an array of enchanting melodies, which leads us into an illusion of a vast variety.

Perhaps I will touch on the mediating role played by trauma across time, which causes the memory traces to increase in intensity, much like the high voltage transformers we use at transmission towers, which transmit energy from the turbines thru the grid. The trauma  or mental pain as it may be called – is like the flow of current thru the plates of the brain states at time t2 and t2.  The intensity and magnitude of trauma determines the severity of memory traits, and may become the cause of all psychopathology.

6 responses to “Memory Trace and its Discontents”

  1. Hi Madhu Sameer,

    Thank you for the response.

    What I am trying to say is, it is not the difference in mental states that are leaving the traces as a cause but the lack of understanding of what causes psychological pain leaves the traces.

    People fighting wars, abused women, battered children, people experiencing unexpected life events all go through a state of mind that is acutely negative. The experience was something that they were not mentally ready for, therefore they were helpless to handle the situation and lost control of sane thinking and therefore experienced the negative state of mind such as deep fear or deep hatred. That negative emotional registration of the feeling as a memory trace is what is termed as trauma. Now this memory footprint can be so deep that it can make one dysfunctional as every thought one tries to think is being interfered by this memory trace. So the question is, as humans, can we learn to accept the states of mind in which we become helpless? Instead of resisting heavily that state of mind, If one accepts that helplessness with fair degree of awareness, wouldn’t the residue of that negative mental state be much less?

    Shouldn’t the role of therapy is to help that person understand this fact and see it clearly within him/herself so he/she realizes the nature of the pain and therefore quickly comes out of it than endless cycles of analysis of mind? It is only when we get beyond the mind , then we can understand mind clearly and be free of any traces.

    The role of science is totally independent of internal reflection in my opinion. Science is about logic and rational thinking and helps us to make our external life better. But by itself is not a curse because it has a definitive role to play. It is not the issue with the gun itself, but who is operating it definitely is.

    The learning of our life seems to be the answer to this question.. How do we embrace uncertainty of life?


    1. Shantaram,

      I agree mostly with your comment. However, I speak on a different plane, and if you detach yourself from the subjectivity, you can see that your own questions provide answers to you.

      Laguage is imposing. It shapes our psyche, our interiority, and dominates our thinking, which in turn affects biology. When subjective language is used, the emotion is personalised. When this happens, the body experiences the emotion physically.Hence negative emotions are experienced (coz we think about harm and trauma).

      The acceptance of emotion per se, without imposing on it qualifier of positive or negative is the fore-runner of what we call healing, but whatis really transcendence (see how our language plays tricks on us and distorts our thinking?). Once we accept that the events just are, they do not have any meaning. EMotion is created because we ascribe meaning to events. Butthen, those emotions too, just are. In either case, whether witnessing or experiencing an event, or processing a related emotion, if we are able to dissociate ourselves from the desirable and undesirableness of the event, or emotion, we transcend the event/emotion. I am not sure if you understand this, for understanding it is tantaount to experiencing it. The understanding orients the brain – and hence th ebody – in a partcular manner, to a non perceptual, non judgmental orientation. You must have heard of, or seen, the men who walk barefooted on coals ? Since the mind does not conceive, perceive pain, the brain state between time t1, and t2 remains unchanged. So there is no memory trace created – at least theoretically. And the body responds by not reacting to the coals. So it is all in the mind.

      As long as something can be imagined, as long as it has entered the realm of imagination, it carries within itself the seed of realisation. Itchanges the brain state and creates memory traces. Humans have the potential of making anything come true. The reverse is also true. As long as something cannot be imagined, it remains lost to human cognition, and therefore inaccessible to human mind – and therefore body.

      Given the above, if language cannot conceive of something, for all practical purposes, that something does not exist.It is for this reason the experience of Moksha, or Nirvana, for example, can only be described in terms of “not this, not that”. As there are no words. What also follows is that the experience does not exist in human cognition, and bodies.

      In the same vein, trauma does not exist if it is not perceived, and conceived of as trauma. What exists is simply a series of related or unrelated events that normally would not affect the brain state, and thus normally would be unable to create a change of brain state. Hence no mental pain would exist. It is our subjectivity, our abiity to iterpret events in a certain way, that causes mental pain, change in brain state, which then leave memory traces. If we did not interpret events, there would be no pain, as brain states would not change. Which is what transcendence is about – the merging of the opposites (pleasure and pain) and going beyond. Whereas the events of themselves are meaningless, all meaning ascribed to trauma is constructed by human. And therefore it is possible to deconstruct that trauma.

      Do you see where I am going with this ?

      You mention scientific reality. Science reflects the realisation of the wishes/imagination of the majority. It too is a constructed science. The universe is transcendental. It is like clay. One can shape it in whichever form one likes, and that form will have all associated and related characteristics of reality. But reality is not actually limited to that scientific view. Ours is simply a *perception* of reality. But science is only one aspect of reality. Non scientific aspects of our existance and knowledge are other perceptions. Each one is as valid as the other.

      For example, I live in a big house. To a giant, the house may apear microscopic. The ant is unable to perceive the whole house and probably sees only a tiny portion of the house. If *you* stand in the front of the house you see a particular view. To the one standing behind my house, the view is different, and to the one standing at either sides, the view is different. The view is different from above, and if a person was to see it from below, the house would look different. Myself, sitting inside the house sees it differently, depending upon where in the house I am sitting. And so on. Each one of these views captures only a partial picture of the house. Each view is valid. The composite exists only in the imagination of the person/entity viewing the house, and to such a person/entity their perception appears “real”. Further, since each electron that constitutes the house is vibrating, and therefore reflecting photons (which enable us to view the building) humans can see it. The electrons also emitting sound waves, and the “views” would be different if our brains were capable of “hearing” the house instead of, or in addition to seeing it. The view would be different if an electron microscopes were used at each of these angles to record an understanding of the house. A microwave detector would see a different “view”. The “views” would be different if energy seeking devices were used instead of humans, or electron microscope, or microwave detector, because ultimately the house is simply a bundle of energy distrubuted in spacetime fabric. The “views” would be different if humans had the ability to see the past/present/future at the same time – like in the movie Interstellar. And so on and so forth.

      Which ones of these “views” of the house is authentic, real ? The answer is : none of these views really pertains to the totality and reality of house. The “view” captured is more a perception of the person, or the function of the device that is capturing that view. It is an interpretation of a tiny partof the reality. Each device – including human viewing and cognition and perceptive apparatus – is capable of as well as limited to – capturing certain aspects of the total reality of the house. Ultimately what the house is, is beyond all human conception.It is beyond the abilities of man made devices. But we have to make do with the consensus. So we generally accept a 3D view of the house seen by human eye. Or we make do with the view presented to us by any of the devices that we have created. An alien entity maybe able to “sense” the house or may have extra terrestrial powers that project a different reality of the house for them. What we imagine, and therefore seek, we get, we see, we are capable of capturing, and realising. Might there be certain aspects of reality of the house that are undecerable to us, because human anatomy does not have the paraphrenalia to capture and interpret those aspects, and therefore are unable to imagine those ? You bet !

      That is what the findings of science are. A consensually arrives view of the reality. Many centuries ago reality was perceived in terms of natural forces. Greek and Hindu mythology has a particular view of the world. Crazy as it may sound today, but that was the reality of our perception at the time, which cost Galelio his life. The consensus is scientific today, and perception has come to be rooted in science. But it is still a perception, and may change in the centuries to come. And teh beauty of the ultimate reality is that no matter whatshape or form one moulds our perception of the reality in, the ultimate reality moulds itself to suit our investigations.

      But that is not how the unknowable “real” world is !

      That is the lesson the Physicists have learnt and come to agree on – hundreds of years of their work has been for nothing. The equations of physics are as mysterious and nonsensical today as they were 2,000 years ago. This has been stated by some of the famous contemporary intelligentia in the academic world of Physics.

      As to your question how do we embrace the uncertainty of life ? By accepting and celebrating that the ultimately, we’re the creator, created, and creation, all in one, in a giant unidentifiable, unknowable, unquantifiable, propertyless, nameless, formless, shapeless universe. Beyond that, is the neti neti world.


      1. Shantaram Vudayagiri Avatar
        Shantaram Vudayagiri

        Madhu Sameer,

        I believe we both are saying the same thing and are not in conflict of understanding. I appreciate your wisdom and is thrilling to note that the field of modern psychiatry is expanding its boundaries :-).

        Yes, I believe I know where you are coming from. However, It is one thing to have a theoretical understanding of Nirvana and altogether a different one to be one with that plane. The first one is an intellectual understanding or sometimes can even be an escape from the ‘reality’ of the sensible world. While the second one is the state of ultimate realization of universe being ‘me. While I do grasp the theory and appreciate non dualism, I have not experienced ‘omnipresence’, therefore do not venture into that.

        Humans are capable of achieving the mental state where walking on burning coal would not change the brain states at two intervals of time t2 and t1 but at the same time, the same person can be afraid of seeing a dog and therefore impacting the brain. History is the witness for that. Our minds can project nirvana and at the same time create havoc for missing morning coffee. So we are own judges to see where we are. A little experience into the state of Nirvana is all needed to change the brain and completely erase the mental traces. But to get that, I guess we have to do our home work sufficiently well and wait :-).

        As you pointed out, it is the subjectivity issue and is inherent to our existence on this plane of the universe. If we can have our education rooted in that self understanding, then we will have lesser conflicts in the world and make living in this world more enjoyable.

        Wishing you the best on your march to greater freedom.

        In peace, here and now.


      2. Hi,

        I never meant to indicate that there was a contradiction in our discourse. I merely wished to take you from the subjective to the objective plane. Perhaps I was assumptive.My apologies if I came across as otherise.

        I agree with your expression.

        Be well.

  2. Wonder if these big intensity traumas are deliberately attracted (albeit unconsiously) so one can actually see the mechanics of how these memory traces are formed and thereby move oneself beyond the suffering? What is the outcome of these traumas? are we learning a life lesson to respect each other and learning to co-exist peacefully with everything else on this planet because we learned about ourselves much more deeply?

    or is it a mandatory step to go through this to usher one to an elevated level of consciousness?

    It is extremely important to have the courage to look into one’s psyche and notice the ‘wound’ caused by a change in the mental state and heal it. If we otherwise live with it unconsciously, we only cause more violence and more damage to our psyche and to the rest of the world before we are ready again.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read.
      Trauma is a much misunderstood word in my humble opinion. Trauma is simply life, and life’s vagarities as we go along, existing. It is only our subjectivity, and our aversion to pain, that labels it as trauma.

      What I attempted to outline, briefly, was that when the mental states are “different” theyleave traces. The memory traces left of “happiness” (vs trauma) are as significant as well. For creation, and nature, there is no difference between trauma and “happiness”. It is only in a constructed world of humans that one of these states is desirable and the other is undesirable. Much like night and day. As humans, we like our days. But the universe is indifferent.

      Each state (trauma v “happiness”) has its uses, and is intermixed in the symphony of our daily life. But because we are averse to pain, we notice trauma, whereas we take “happiness” or “non traumatic events” for granted.

      Because we “notice” trauma, and think about it, I suspect we also learn from it. If we “noticed” and thought about “non tramatic states” we would learn from these as well. But we regard these durations as an absence of trauma, and when viewed from such a standpoint, one can learn only about trauma if they are classified as non traumatic events.

      I agree it is important to look into the psyche to understand the wound. But it is also just as important to look intothe psyche and acknowledge the happiness, fulfulment, and understand what the state of happiness really is.

      Our scriptures were more holistic. They did not classify non trauma intervals of human life as such. They explored and meditated on the “happy” parts of our existance as deeply as traumatic parts of our existance. Therefore we have philosophies related to Sat Chit Anand. These aspects of existance seem to be lost in contemporary world as more and more emphasis is laid on blood, gore, trauma, and disorders than is laid on happiness, and wellbeing which are states of mind in themsleves, and not simply as absence of trauma, and illness.

      I belive this absence of a philosophical discourse that creates a lack of interiority, self reflection, is the curse of science, and also the cause of self inflicted suffering.

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