Day 036 - The purpose of memory

Submitted by Sam on 25 June, 2011 - 23:41

If the mind is a control system directed towards the purpose of deciding what to do next, then all components of mind, including memory, must in some way support this goal. Pentti Kanerva, currently a Research Affiliate at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, put forward a theory of memory in 1988 1 consonant with this view, stating that the function of memory is to make available information relevant to the current state of the outside world rapidly enough to allow the organism to predict events in the world, including the consequences of its own actions.

The ability to predict the consequences of actions, however fuzzily, has clear evolutionary benefits. The best way to make predictions is to look at the most recent past, and to compare current events with previously encountered similar situations. Subsequently, there is clear evolutionary advantage in a system which can retrieve earlier situations and their consequences, and match them to the various modes of sensory stimulus which constitute the organism's 'present'.

In this model of memory, the present situation as represented by the current pattern of sensory input acts as a retrieval cue for memories of earlier events, which are used to predict the next sensory input. In a continual process of retrieval and comparison, the organism's internal model of the world is created and updated, comparing and strengthening memories of sequences of events which accurately predict real-world consequences, and modifying those that do not. The system learns by this corrective process of comparison, encoding and integrating information into a predictive model of the world, aiding the individual in deciding what to do next.

  • 1. Kanerva, Pentti. Sparse Distributed Memory. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1988. Print.
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