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Observations placeholder

Damasio, Professor Antonio - Remembering



Type of Spiritual Experience


In the section on remembering, you will be able to see that what happens during the accessing of memory is not at all dissimilar to a database search – the remembering function wanders around the data in memory using classes and links and pulling together a composite picture based on what we wanted to remember.  An alternative way to think of this is the sort of action we use when searching the Internet following hypertext links.

This implies that the remembering function is triggered by a sort of ‘keyword’ or set of keywords and the remembering function is similar in some cases to the way Google might operate searching to find data that matches the search we are wanting. 

What starts the whole process is thus a perception – a thought which simply says ‘find me this ……’

How successful we are at finding things is in very very large part dependent on how successful we are at classifying and indexing and organising our information.  Or to put it another way how good we are at the function of learning.

One of the ways we know that remembering is a separate function is by looking at the case histories of brain damaged people.  The brain is like a hardware processor that executes specific software, thus any damage to the processor tends to mean the function can no longer execute.  The case studies show that brain damage can wipe out the memory itself or portions of it, or wipe out the function.  In the following case history, it is portions of the memory which have been wiped, the recall function is working, but it has nothing to work on…..

In the example we can see that the classes and relationships between classes in his model of the universe were stored separately from the data that populated his ‘database’.  He could tell the doctor that there was a class called shop, but not name individual shops.  He also kept his model of how the functions of the universe worked separate from any data.  So the brain damage he suffered wiped out the data but not the classes – the generic model meaning he could recall classes and functions, but he could not recall the data itself.

We cannot make any generic assumptions about how the learning process organises the data it acquires from this one observation – other people may organise it differently because they learnt differently, but it shows that  in his case, data and classes were segregated.

So this patient had lost  portions of the memory database  which had been wiped, the remembering  function was working.  The description also seems to show that images are kept separately in the database from facts using tokens or words.

A description of the experience

Professor Antonio Damasio – The Feeling of What Happens

[this patient].. is unable to recall many old facts.  The recall of virtually any unique thing, individual, or event, from his entire life, is denied to him.  His memory loss goes almost all the way to the cradle.

There are a few exceptions to this ravage.  He does know his name and the names of his wife, children and close relatives.  He does not recall what they look like or what their voices sound like.  Accordingly he cannot recognise any of them in photographs, old or recent and he does not recognise them in person…. He knows his former professional occupation and the name of the city in which he lived most of his life, but he cannot picture the place and he cannot recognise photographs of his former houses, of the cars he owned, of the pets he loved, or of personal artefacts that were dear to him.

Nothing specific comes to mind when he is asked about those unique items and what comes to mind when he is shown photos of the items or the items themselves is the knowledge of the item as a member of a conceptual category. 

Shown a picture of his son, age fourteen, he says that it shows a young man with a nice smile, probably going to high school, but he has no idea that it is his own son.  All that he remembers…. Are the generics of most everything in the world around him.  He knows what a city is, and a street, and a building, and how a hospital differs from a hotel.  He knows what different kinds of furniture, or clothes, or means of transportation are available.  He also knows the different kinds of actions that things or living beings can perform and he knows the general plot line of the events that most commonly involve such things or living beings. 

But when you realise that he has lost the ability to access the unique facts that he learned until age forty six and that he has not been able to acquire any new facts since then, you take stock of the magnitude of the impairment............................

The patient was sitting quietly when he caught sight of his wife as she walked toward him.  He showed no sign of recognising her but returned her warm smile with another warm smile.  Knowing that he would not recognise her identity, she said, in her gentle voice, not just “good morning”, but also, “I am your wife”.  To which he replied, for the first time in the course of the disease.

 “And who am I?”

The question was serious and matter of fact.  There was no hint of humour and no anxiety.  The inquisitive mode of his former autobiographical self was still in place, as a robust vestige and it simply wished to know.

The disease had descended from the stage in which learning of new facts and recall of general memories is no longer possible to the stage in which the personal biography can no longer reliably be displayed.  Autobiographical self and the extended consciousness that depends on it were now forever gone.  Months later it would be time for core consciousness and its simple sense of self to vanish as well

The source of the experience

Damasio, Professor Antonio

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Brain damage