Chapter 6: Memories and the Mind

Chapter six of Bel Canto starts off by recalling the events of the chapter from a future perspective. The meta cognitive aspect of this statement was intriguing because it involved thinking about how the characters will later recall this event. A few pages later Mr. Hosokawa mentions how the first few years of Nansei “were like a hurricane in his memory, a huge, overbearing wind into which every loose thing was sucked.” This quote solidified my interest in memory formation and made me wonder what kinds factors impact memory recollection.

Memory is huge, it comprises so much of the human condition that even modern day research has only scratched the surface. The current simplified model splits memory into two partitions, one for long term storage and another for short term memory. George Miller in the research paper “Plans and the structure of behavior” coined the term “working memory” in 1960 to describe the processes used to manipulate temporary information in the brain.[1] He likened working memory to a computer system which has a limited capacity of memory in which to run programs. Even before this in 1956 Miller acknowledged the fact that the human brain is only able to process a finite set of data at a time. Through many sensory experiments, like how many distinct tones individuals can recognize and how well individuals can remember how many points appear in a circle, he came up the number seven as the average number of “chunks” of information humans can store at one time in working memory. [2] This arbitrary limitation exposes an interesting consequence of the architecture of the human brain.

Many theories exist to expand upon this idea of a short term memory. The Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch theory splits the working memory into four main sections: a central executive, the phonological loop, the visuospatial scratchpad, and the episodic buffer. [3] In general this theory considers working memory as a workspace rather than a storage medium for memories accumulated into long term memory. The central executive manages this workspace including how attention is allocated and how thoughts are processed. The other three sections are controlled by the central executive and each specializes in certain types of data. The visuospatial scratchpad for instance is responsible for, as the name suggests, how visual and spatial information is stored. Similarly, the phonological loop is for verbal processing and language association. Finally the episodic buffer was a recent addition by Baddeley to explain how the brain can cross reference data from the visuospatial sketchpad and phonological loop. [4]

The conceptual leap from short term to long term memory is often a stretch for the imagination. The past couple decades have been marked by an explosion in the memory research field, major researchers like James McGaugh and Roozendaal Benno were responsible for breaking the previously held notion that memories are consolidated into long term memory at a constant rate. His research on the effects of various drugs on the rate of memory consolidation created an entire sub field known as “memory modulation.” [5] Their early research focused on stress hormones and the interaction it has with the basolateral amygdala, a known part of the brain associated with memory and emotional reactions.

One rule of thumb that has become standard is the “peak end rule” established by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize–winning psychologist, in his book “Thinking, fast and slow”. The peak end rule boils down to how past experiences are remembered primarily through the highest level of pain experienced over the course of an event and the level of pain at the end. This rule has been shown to apply to more than just pain, it can be used to determine the approximately how fondly a subject will remember an event. [7] In an independent study titled “A Test of the Peak-end Rule with Extended Autobiographical Events” 49 students were polled about how happy they felt over the course of their seven day vacation and again once the vacation was over. Although the study didn’t align well with the peak end hypothesis it did point out some interesting implications of over generalizing this widely regarded rule. [8] Some possible reason why the peak end hypothesis wasn’t a good predictor in this case might be because participants overall had a consistently better vacation than most making the difference between the lowest and highest points of the vacation negligible thus making the peak and end less prominant. To link this research back to the novel the first sentence of this chapter clearly identifies “the box” as the peak of the hostages’ experiences and shows that this point is the highest level of happiness. Now depending on the end of the book the hostages’ long term recollection of this event may actually be quite positive.

An interesting addition to the aforementioned study was the support it had for another of Kahneman’s theory, namely the idea of “duration neglect.” This phenomenon shows that the duration of an event has no effect on the later level of pain or happiness associated with a the event. As such the effect of shorter, similar experiences can be generalized to indicate the approximate happiness level one might experience in a longer event. This theory is often experienced first hand when someone has a wonderfully relaxing, long vacation and then only remembers it as a fast paced blur.

In the book “Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation” by Thomas Anastasio the idea of a collective memory is examined. [6] A prominent figure in the book is Halbwachs, the developer of the concept of collective memory. In his book “On Collective Memory” he presents the thought experiment that memory isn’t personally owned because it is society that allows access to memories. He states – “There is no point in seeking where [memories] are preserved in my brain or in some nook of my mind to which I alone have access: for they are recalled to me externally, and the groups of which I am part at any time give me the means to reconstruct them.” [9] Just like owning a safe does not mean you can access what is inside, our own minds lock away thoughts, experiences, and ideas and only through a transitory concept like the “present” are we able to obtain the keys. Combine this with Miller’s finite working memory theory and the limits of the human brain start becoming unsettlingly clear. Suffice it to say, this thought will stick with me forever.

In culmination, memory research combines psychology, biology, sociology, and neurology in an attempt to solve the riddle of the brain’s arguably most critical operation, memory. From the concept of Miller’s working memory we saw that the brain has a finite capacity for thought. Through Baddeley and Hitch the conceptual sections of working memory are explored. McGaugh and Benno opened the door to long term memory by their theory on memory modulation. Kahneman and his Peak-End rule provides an emotional construct for how memories are compacted and reduced for long term storage. Finally, Halbwachs and his theory of a collective memory combines all the previous research into a societal conspiracy that throws human agency into question. Ultimately, the theories presented here are constantly being torn apart and re-evaluated as we learn more about the brain and its underlying structure.

– Michael Pedersen

Anastasio, Thomas J. Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation: Analogous Processes on Different Levels. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2012. Print.


Baddeley, Alan D, Richard J. Allen, and Graham J. Hitch. “Binding in Visual Working Memory: the Role of the Episodic Buffer.” Neuropsychologia. 49.6 (2011): 1393-1400. Print.


Baddeley, Alan D, and Graham J. Hitch. “Developments in the Concept of Working Memory.” Neuropsychology. 8.4 (1994): 485-493. Print.


Halbwachs, Maurice, and Lewis A. Coser. On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print.


Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. , 2011. Print.


Kemp, Simon, Christopher D. B. Burt, and Laura Furneaux. “A Test of the Peak-End Rule with Extended Autobiographical Events.” Memory & Cognition. 36.1 (2008): 132-138. Print.


Miller, George A. Plans and the Structure of Behavior. New York: Holt, 1960. Print.


MILLER, GA. “The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” Psychological Review. 63.2 (1956): 81-97. Print.


McGaugh, James L, and Benno Roozendaal. “Drug Enhancement of Memory Consolidation: Historical Perspective and Neurobiological Implications.” Psychopharmacology. 202 (2009): 1-3. Print.


McGaugh, James L, Norman M. Weinberger, and Gary Lynch. Brain and Memory: Modulation and Mediation of Neuroplasticity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.


One thought on “Chapter 6: Memories and the Mind

  1. bsejdiu942 says:

    Hey Michael,

    I liked your extensive research on memory and the knowledge we have so far about this mysterious organ. It makes me wonder if we could ever understand the brain entirely, which reminded me of a quote by Lyatt Watson, ““If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t”. It’s an argument brought up in the larger scientific community of whether or not the brain can truly understand everything, what is the limit of what we can store/know? As I usually do with these biological matters, I wonder if these forms of memory storage you discuss exist in other species, and perhaps if there is a study. You could extend this research to the evolutionary history of the brain, and how these certain components may have evolved over time. How these individual aspects of memory storage (auditory, visual, etc) relate to one another? I’m assuming some work in conjunction due to proximity of each other in the brain.

    There is definitely some overlap with how time is involved, as you discussed how people experience happy memories as occurring rather quickly. You could focus research on the physical mechanisms of how this works and possibly question why our duration of these memories function in this way, why would it be beneficial for natural selection to go this route?

    I liked your discussion about Mr. Anastasio where he discussed the social aspect of how we recall these memories. As our storage of these ideas would be based upon what we were/are subjected to in the larger group, which includes cultural ideals, language, religious ideologies. I wonder if there is research out there that compares the human brain’s operations to other larger cultural groups, to find (if any) markers in the way people think and store information?



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