Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Planning and Remembering: Imagining the Self in Different Times and False Memories

So, recently something happened to me, and in this moment the line between imagination, planning/forethought/intention, and memory disappeared and I realized they all belong to one strange imagined universe. It felt like planning and remembering had swirled together into the pool of the imagination. So first, the story. Second, the jabber.

The story. I was at my house with two friends. My friend was missing something that he thought he had brought with him. He recounted the days events, explaining how he remembers sitting on a chair with the item next to him and thinking 'i am gonna put that into my back pack.' And he really felt as if though he had placed it in there. He was genuinely surprised it wasn't there.

How could this happen? How could he have the intention of doing something, fail to do it, and have a false memory of doing it anyways?

Short answer: both forethought/intention and memory operate using the same processes of imagination and simulation. Intentions we have considered, therefore, can provide us with false memories. And when we incorrectly remember a memory we are drawing on the parts of our imagination that were primed by our planning.

Now, to expand this idea I want to talk about three things, all of them relating to how the mind engages in processes of imagination and internal simulation. I'll talk about how the mind internally simulates with the imagination in general. Then how the brain may engage in simulation in processes of forethought or planning. Then I'll talk about how the brain engages in processes of simulation when remembering things. Last, I'll try to wrap up how imagination, planning, and memory are all very closely related in the mind/brain.

General Imagination and Simulation:
So in this section I want to flesh out how it is that imaginative thinking typically involves forms of internal simulation. I am positing this mainly on my understanding of mirror neurons, and also on my sense of how imagination is wrapped up with experience. So, mirror neurons. When we see someone in pain, a portion of our brain cells responsible for feeling pain is activated, those are mirror neurons. Similarly, when we witness any action being performed our brain activates part of the neurons required to perform that action. When we hear a sound our brain mirrors the neurons responsible for the action the sound produced. For example, if we hear the sound of a baseball bat hitting a baseball, our brain would activate the neurons responsible for swinging a baseball bat. So, basic idea propping up the remainder of the post: the witnessing of an actions causes us to internally simulate the performance of that action for ourselves. In short, perception requires internal simulation.

Now, I have read that mirror neurons also play a role in all imagining. When we think about a hypothetical situation, our brain is utilizing its past experiences and its mirror neurons to concoct that imagined scenario. So we use our experiences with pain, our experiences with sadness, or frustration, to imagine how someone would have felt in x y or z situation. When we think of someone on the side of the road with a smoking car we have to imagine how that person feels, and we can only do that by drawing on our own experiences in that situation, or our knowledge of other people's experiences. I can't remember if I explicitly read about this, or if I am paraphrasing lots of stuff or what. But I am fairly sure that mirror neurons are involved in the imagination, and so therefore anytime we use the imagination we are engaging in some form internal simulation of past experience.

So, base assertion for the next two sections: Every time we use our imagination, from the mundane to the fantastic, we are engaging in some sort of internal simulation. We always using our past experiences to create a sense of how it would feel to do a certain thing, or to be in a certain situation. When we are thinking about the past, present, or future, or interacting with others, we are in some sense imagining and also internally simulating.

Onto forethought/planning and memory as forms of simulation.

Planning and Imaginative Simulation:

In this section I am entertaining the idea that forethought and planning require you to use the imagination in a way that amounts to a simulation of a hypothetical experience. For example, when I am planning to wake up and walk my dog, or pick up something for someone, I bet part of my mind is simulating those actions internally. When I see someone else experience pain, my mind activates pain receptors. Similarly, I bet that when I imagine myself getting in a car accident, or imagine myself going to the store, my mind activates all the motor and emotional neurons that would be involved in those actions. So imagining the future, planning, would probably force me to simulate the experiences that I suspect I will have in the future. So planning and the imagination and simulation seem to be very closely related.

I just read, in The Mind and The Brain, about an experiment comparing brains that actually perform a task and a group that imagines themselves performing the same task. I don't want to go into the details of this experiment. But, they had a group play a specific song on the piano and another group imagine themselves playing a specific song on the piano. Basically, the same areas of the brain were affected in near identical ways. Imagining an action and performing an action utilize the same areas and causes similar change.

So, this legitimates the idea that imagining the future probably involves the activation of areas of the brain that would be required for enacting those plans, and, as I will discuss, are also used when remembering the event. Planning amounts to an imaginative simulation of hypothetical future experience.

Now I want to make the case that memory also involves a form of imaginative simulation, and then I will talk about how planning and memory may mingle and become confused in certain moments, creating false memories

Memory and Imaginative Simulation:
So, as I said, I want to claim that memory is also a process that involves the imagination, and that it too involves the activation of neurons that were involved in the actual experience. In short, that memory is a form of imaginative simulation. I am basing this off of a little bit of evidence and some speculation. I saw Steven Rose, a neurobiologist, at a conference on neuroplasticity that I saw a video of, say that when remember something we are actively reconstructing the memory every time. Further, every time we think of the same memory and bring it back to life and we inevitably change it each time we bring it back. This makes it seem as though memory almost definitely involves the imagination. More so, it shows, as we all know, that memory is not very reliable, and is more of a story that your mind creates for you than anything else. So, memory definitely involves the imagination, whether it is mostly the a priori imagination or not, I haven't worked out that detail. But it is probably a combo of a priori and deliberate imagination, more so a priori I think.

Second, mirror neurons are involved in memory. When we remember past actions, just as when we perceive present actions, or imagine future actions, our brain activates the parts of our brain that would be necessary for performing those actions. So, when we are having a memory, we are in essence re-experiencing those moments as they have been created/warped by our imagination. Memory, therefore, is a process that involves the imagination and simulation of past events.

Now, to discuss how, given that planning and memory both utilize the same forms of imagination and simulation, they can become blurred in certain moments and create false memories.

When planning collapses into false memory:

I am arguing that in terms of the parts of the brain utilized, there is significant overlap between planning and remembering. The central faculties for both are 1. the imagination and 2. mirror neurons. When we are planning to do something we imagine ourselves performing that action in the future. When we imagine this action our mirror neurons that correspond with the performance of that action are activated (we plan to play baseball, our motor neurons for swinging, catching, etc. are activated). So planning forces us to imagine and internally simulate the experience we intend to enact. Similarly, with memory, we imagine something we did in the past, and our corresponding mirror neurons are activated (we remember pain, our pain neurons fire). So, memory, too, is essentially a form of imagination that facilitates an internal simulation. The only difference between imaginative simulation in planning and memory is the point in time we are imagining/simulating, and why we are doing it. We are either imagining/simulating hypothetical future experience for the purpose of planning, or we are imagining/simulating past experience for the purpose of remembering.

So, given that planning and remembering are using the same parts of the mind/brain, how could they blur? Well, I think I have a reasonable explanation for why it is that my friend, and maybe others, have false memories sometimes.

My friend had planned to bring his item with him. When he looked into his bag and it wasn't there he could have sworn he had a memory of putting it in there. I am proposing that his act of planning to do it (i.e. imagining/simulating the act of putting the item in his bag), 'primed' all of those neurons to fire when it came time to construct a memory. When we use one specific set of neurons (like when he imagines/simulates the specific task of putting the item in his bag), we make those neruons more likely to fire at a later date. This is called priming. When we learn about something new, we are more likely to find that thing in the world around us, even if it is just as common as before. The brain has become primed to its presence. It works the same way with language and memory.

So, my friends false memory can be attributed to the priming that occurred in his brain from the planning of the action. When he imagined/simulated putting the item in the bag he used all the motor neurons necessary for performing the action, the same motor neurons that would be used in the memory of the action. So when he tried to remember what happened, why the item wasn't there, his motor neurons were primed, from the planning, to fire, giving him the false memory of himself putting them in the bag. So planning primes the mirror neurons in the brain, thus making them more likely to fire when they are called upon for memory.

I created a sloppy pictorial image of this idea.


What I am trying showing here is the central pillar of the imagination, and how it is that planning and remembering can both be considered forms of imagination/simulation that are projected into different times. With planning, however, it can create ripples that extend into our sense of memory. When we plan an action we activate all the specific neurons (via mirror neurons) that are required to perform that action. When we remember an action, we do the exact same thing, we activate the mirror neurons that we believe we used in the actual moment. Given that neurons become primed once used, wouldn't the imagination of an action or outcome prime those neurons and make us more likely to remember the event that way afterwards? If you plan to act a certain way in a situation, are you more likely to remember that event as if you acted that way? If I plan on acting confident and witty at a party, and I imagine/simulate myself as acting that way, would my memory be more likely to be constructed around those terms? Would I be more likely to remember myself as witty or confident?

Here I feel like I am breaking ground on things that I am only aware of now that I have finished writing this. The connection, very generally, between intention/planning and our memories. Do our memories often drift around what our intentions were? Do we remember things certain ways because we planned them to go that way? All of this stuff on mirror neurons and the imagination certainly suggests our minds understand mainly through imagination and simulation of intention. So, it makes sense that imagining intention, planning, priming those mirror neurons, would make us more inclined to remember things as we had planned or intended them to be.

The imagination, as a super broad concept, is quickly becoming an important idea for me.

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