Harry Haroutioun Haladjian Ph.D.

Theory of Consciousness

Consciousness and Memory

Memory is a crucial but often overlooked contributor to consciousness.

Posted Nov 16, 2015

In Answered Prayers, Truman Capote comments on the allure of Marcel Proust's writing: “Because something is true doesn’t mean that it’s convincing, either in life or in art. Think of Proust. Would Remembrance have the ring that it does if he had made it historically literal, if he hadn’t transposed sexes, altered events and identities? If he had been absolutely factual, it would have been less believable.” (1986, 49) Indeed, in life and in art, plausibility and accuracy need to be balanced. This is a particularly difficult problem with respect to memory. When it comes to how exactly we remember our past and what makes memories insightful and vivid, Capote had the right idea.

Memory is typically modeled after perception. "Remembering" and "perceiving" are considered to be success terms because if one remembers an event, then the event happened; and if one perceives an object, then the object is accurately represented. Analogously, misremembering an event is similar to illusory perception—there is some perceptual information present, but it is being misrepresented. And then there are hallucinations, which are analogous to full confabulations because they are not simply misrepresentations but unconstrained mental fabrications in the absence of stimuli. Accordingly, misremembering and confabulating are forms of malfunctioning, the latter being worse. This analogy between perception and memory is straightforward, but it can’t be right for several reasons.

First, scientific evidence shows that this analogy cannot be the whole story. Memories are not retrieved from long-term memory always in the same way and with the exact same information. Rather, there is a constructive process that reconsolidates them at retrieval and storage (Lane et al., 2015). Procedural and implicit forms of memory are very accurate and allow us to do things like play tennis or ride a bicycle, but healthy individuals tend to systematically confabulate details about their personal lives. In fact, healthy patients systematically distort these personal memories—significantly more than patients with memory impairments like amnesia (Schacter et al., 1996). Unlike the perceptual case, memory distortion (at least concerning autobiographical memory) is not pathological or simply a malfunction, but it is very likely beneficial because the purpose of the memory system is not only to store information about past actions and events but also to make sense of the past in insightful ways.

Second, from a theoretical perspective, if the main function of autobiographical memory is to produce a self-conscious narrative, then the relationship between autobiographical memories and other memories (episodic and semantic) cannot be thought of exclusively in terms of accuracy. One can illustrate this point with Nelson Goodman’s (1981, 110-111) example of the difference between a report and a narrative. According to Goodman, reorganizing a set of events (for our purpose, a set of memories) in the interest of accuracy may alter a narrative to such a critical point that it becomes an exposition or report. Interestingly, the difference between a report and a narrative does not depend exclusively on the accuracy or inaccuracy of information. A false narrative can give way to a false report and vice versa, and the same holds for an accurate one. What matters for producing a cohesive personal story is the significance of a set of memories. Narrative is much more than chronometrically organized events, and autobiographical memory, by analogy, is much more than chronometrically organized memories.

There is a trade-off, therefore, between the epistemic value of a memory trace (the accuracy of the information that makes knowledge about the past possible), and its narrative value (the contextual coherence of the information in a comprehensive self-narrative and what that narrative personally evokes). It is not entirely clear how extant models of memory can balance these tradeoffs, but it is clear that the brain needs to provide a balance between just accuracy and just narrative. We focus here on one example that shows that conscious autobiographical memory cannot be reduced to simply attending to accurate episodic memories (in accordance to the CAD framework that we discussed in a previous post and in Montemayor and Haladjian, 2015).

It is common experience that smells and sounds can evoke powerful and vivid memories. When these memories are triggered, what is fundamental about them is the vivacity and significance of what they evoke in the subject. They can be accurate, occurring in tandem with epistemic information, but the set of recollections that are evoked saturate the information in colorful ways, opening up a spectrum of variation in the experiences of the same memory. Metaphorically speaking, triggering these memories is more like opening a door to a large storage room rather than neatly retrieving specific information about the past from a file in your desk drawer. These memories can be surprising and produce profound emotional and aesthetic effects. We call this involuntary process of rich recollection based on external cues "Proustian flooding," in honor of Marcel Proust’s insights concerning memory.

The evocative power of a scent that reminds us of an event or a person illustrates Proustian flooding. It has been confirmed empirically that odors are powerful cues for particularly evocative and vivid autobiographical memories (e.g., see Chu and Downes, 2000). In his work, Proust described how perceptual cues can trigger memories automatically in the sense that their retrieval needs no control or conscious guidance. Yet these memories produce powerful changes in conscious experience. If the memory triggered is very pleasant, there is a torrent of pleasing experiences associated with it—the face of a loved one, the surroundings of a memorable event, and other sensorial memories.

Music has a similar effect on the spontaneous retrieval of vivid memories. When one listens to a song that one has not heard for a long period of time, there can be an experience of immersion into the past. One feels as if the memories and the associated feelings of a whole period of our distant past suddenly rush in. Proustian flooding is one way in which vivid memories enrich and make our conscious lives interesting and surprising, as well as meaningfully continuous with our past.

Memory is an important component of conscious experience, feeding its content with details about the past and personal meaning. Consciousness is not simply perceptual information maintained temporarily in working memory, although that does occupy a great deal of conscious experience. It is a collection of systems that work together to produce the useful, and sometimes not so useful, contents of awareness. Our next post will explore how consciousness and attention work with respect to other very vivid experiences: dreams.

- Carlos Montemayor and Harry Haladjian


Capote, T. (1986). Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel. Hamish Hamilton: London.

Chu, S., and Downes, J. J. (2000). Odour-evoked autobiographical memories: Psychological investigations of Proustian phenomena. Chemical Senses, 25(1): 111–116.

Goodman, N. (1981). “Twisted Tales; or, Story, Study, and Symphony.” In On Narrative, edited by W. J. T. Mitchell, 99-115. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1981.

Lane, R. D., Ryan, L., Nadel, L., and Greenberg, L. (2015). Memory reconsolidation, emotional arousal, and the process of change in psychotherapy: New insights from brain science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, e1.

Montemayor, C., and Haladjian, H. H. (2015). Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Schacter, D. L., Verfaille, M., and Pradere, D. (1996). The neuropsychology of memory illusions: False recall and recognition in amnesic patients. Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 319–334.