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On the true mystery of memory

May 21, 2010

Raymond Tallis in Philosophy Now:

Salvador Dali “The Persistence of Memory” (1931)

Regular readers of this column will know that despite my background in neuroscience, I am not persuaded that brain activity is a sufficient explanation of any aspect of human consciousness. Notwithstanding the claims of ‘neurophilosophy’, I do not think my feelings, emotions and thoughts are reducible to nerve impulses. What may be less obvious is that I am very grateful to the errors of the neurophilosophers for inadvertently and indirectly making visible the true mystery of consciousness. I felt this gratitude particularly strongly the other day when I was reading about Eric Kandel’s research on one particularly intriguing aspect of consciousness: memory. This was the exquisite work for which he received the 2000 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Kandel’s studies were carried out using the giant (almost a foot long) sea snail AplysiaAplysia has two features which make it attractive to neuroscientists. First, it has relatively few neurons (20,000, compared with the hundreds of billions in your cerebral cortex alone). Second, its neurons are strapping cables of a millimetre or more in diameter, and uniquely identifiable, so it is easy to see what is happening inside them, and, more importantly, inside their connexions, the synapses. [More]

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