Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI.: MEMORY. - The Principles of Psychology
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CHAPTER VI.: MEMORY. - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology 
The Principles of Psychology (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855).
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§ 190. That growing complication of the correspondence, which, as we have just seen, necessitates a merging of the automatic actions into the non-automatic actions, at the same time introduces divisions of the process of correspondence into separate phases. While, in its simple form, the adjustment of certain inner to certain outer relations, is one complete and indivisible action; in its complex form, such adjustment is composed of several stages capable of a more or less complete dissociation from each other—capable of independent occurrence; and so, capable of forming fragments of correspondences. Thus, among others, results the order of psychical actions known as Memory. While, in any instinctive act, we see an entire process of bringing internal relations into harmony with external relations; Memory, taken alone, exhibits relations in consciousness which not only do not include any active adjustment of the organism to its environment, but which often have but a comparatively indefinite reference to external relations. Though, without doubt, those successions of ideas which constitute memory, are all representative of some past experiences of the external world; though even our recollections of purely internal events—peculiar emotions we have had, and thoughts that have struck us—may be affiliated upon those impressions from without, which form the raw material of consciousness; yet, as a great part of our remembrances stand for external combinations of phenomena that were purely fortuitous, it is clear that, even considered as fragments of correspondences, they cannot be held to have as marked a harmony with the environment as the parallel parts of automatic actions have. Though each act of recollection is the establishment of an inner relation answering to some outer relation; yet, as that outer relation is very frequently one that existed only for an instant, and will never occur again, the inner relation that is established in the act of recollection, is often one answering to no relation now existing, or that ever will exist; and in that sense is not a correspondence. The correspondence here becomes evanescent.
From this it will probably be inferred, that a satisfactory account of Memory, as viewed from our present stand-point, is by no means easy. Its varied and irregular phenomena seem at first sight to acknowledge no law. The doctrine that all psychical changes are interpretable as incidents of the correspondence between the organism and its environment, appears to be at fault. Besides the fact that part of the psychical changes constituting Memory, have reference to no existing outer relation; there is the further fact, that very many of our associations of ideas have apparently little or nothing to do with effecting an adjustment between inner to outer relations. And more especially difficult will it be thought to trace any connection between Memory and Instinct. But though the position of Memory, in the psychological system here sketched out, may not be at once understood—though many will be inclined, even after some consideration, to regard it as a faculty altogether unrelated to the lower psychical faculties, and one of which the genesis is inexplicable; yet, it needs but to follow out the synthesis thus far carried, to see clearly that Memory must result from that same process of development by which Instinct, becoming more and more complicated, finally merges into the higher forms of psychical action. And I do not know a clearer proof of the general doctrines enunciated, than that they furnish an answer to this seemingly insoluble problem.
Some clue to the right comprehension of the matter, will be gained on considering, that while, on the one hand, Instinct may be regarded as a kind of organized memory; on the other hand, Memory may be regarded as a kind of incipient instinct. The inseparable psychical states exhibited in the automatic actions of a bee building one of its wax cells, answer to outer relations so constantly experienced that they are, as it were, organically remembered. And that cohesion of psychical states implied in any ordinary recollection, is a cohesion which becomes stronger by a repeated succession of such psychical states; and so is capable of approximating more and more to the indissoluble, the automatic, or instinctive cohesions. But, leaving rough suggestions, let us again take up the general argument from the point reached at the close of the last chapter.
§ 191. So long as the psychical changes are completely automatic, there cannot exist any Memory, as we understand it: there cannot exist anything like those irregular psychical changes seen in the association of ideas. The hypothesis itself, implying that the internal relations are organic and antecedent to the experience of the individual, necessarily excludes those internal relations determined by individual experience, which Memory presupposes. But when, as a consequence of advancing complexity and decreasing frequency in the groups of external relations responded to, the answering groups of internal relations become less perfectly organized—when they become so involved as to fail in their automatic regularity; then, what we call Memory becomes nascent. For the elucidation of this, we must again have recourse to symbols.
As before, let A, B, C, D, represent the group of coexistent attributes common to living bodies in general; let e, f, g, stand for the further attributes distinctive of some class of creatures mostly serving for prey; and let h, k, be the peculiar attributes of some species of that class, which, when attacked, defends itself in a particular way; while h, m, are the somewhat similar attributes of another species whose defence amounts to a retaliation worse than the attack. We have, then, two somewhat similar complex groups of coexistent attributes, A, B, C, D, e, f, g, h, k, and A, B, C, D, e, f, g, h, m, which, by the hypothesis, are not very frequently repeated in experience; but which, when they do occur, are attended by different consequences. Of these somewhat similar complex groups, the attributes A, B, C, D, being common to all living creatures, and presented in every experience of them, are responded to by automatically connected internal states; e, f, g, the attributes of creatures serving for prey, being extremely general, have also answering internal states that are automatically connected with the first, and with those motor changes which the presentation of prey calls for; while h, k, and h, m, from their comparatively infrequent recurrence, are represented by internal states that are not organically co-ordinated with their respective groups, or with the motor changes which those groups should produce. Such being the conditions of the case, let us consider what must be the consequences.
In the first place, the mere complication in the groups of impressions serving as stimuli to special actions, may itself be held to imply something like a nascent memory. For as, on the one hand, the nervous centre by which any set of impressions A, B, C, D, e, f, g, h, k, are co-ordinated, cannot receive all these impressions at the same instant; and as, on the other hand, the special actions to be produced, can be produced only by the joint stimulus of all these impressions; it follows that the nervous effects they severally imply, must have a certain small persistency, so that the last may arise before the first fades away.
Not to dwell upon this, however, let us pass on to remark, that in proportion as the states answering to the attributes h, k, and those answering to the h, m, have been unfrequently connected with their respective group of states, and the actions succeeding them; in the same proportion must the nervous changes by which they are themselves produced, and by which they produce subsequent changes, be slow. It is a universal fact respecting the connection of psychical states, that not only does frequent recurrence make them increasingly strong, but it makes the transitions more and more rapid; and conversely, it is a fact of which we have abundant experience, that incipient psychical connections take an appreciable time—a fact well exemplified in the learning of a new language. But the tolerably deliberate succession of psychical states is one of the conditions to Memory. A remembrance is necessarily a state of consciousness which lasts an appreciable time. The nervous states which are gone through instantaneously—as those by which we infer the distances of the objects we look at—do not enter into what we term Memory at all; we are in fact unconscious of them, because they are not states of our consciousness that have any appreciable persistence. Hence, then, the occurrence of these comparatively slow psychical changes, is a step towards the evolution of Memory.
But now observe a further consequence. When either of the groups of attributes A, B, C, D, e, f, g, h, k, or A, B, C, D, e, f, g, h, m, is presented; the set of impressions A, B, C, D, e, f, g, produced in common by both of them, and by all creatures serving for prey, tends to excite the actions by which prey is ordinarily caught. At the same time, the impressions produced by h, k, or h, m, as the case may be, tend in some degree to excite those modified actions which occurred in experience after such impressions. Not only however, by the hypothesis, is the actual excitation of such modified actions uncertain, from the experiences having been insufficiently repeated; but the two tendencies are more or less conflicting. The impression resulting from the attribute h, being common to both groups, tends equally to excite either of the modified sets of actions: in the one case a particular mode of attack; in the other case, running away. And at the same time, the tendencies towards both these modified sets of actions are antagonized by the tendency towards the original mode of action. Hence, from the balance of these various tendencies, it will often happen that no immediate action at all will ensue. The various psychical states involved in each set of motions, will severally become nascent; but will none of them reach that intensity which they would have were the motions performed. In the chief nervous centre there will arise a conflict among the impressions, and by consequence among the motor impulses which those impressions tend to produce; and these motor impulses, being severally supplanted by one another before they pass into actual motor changes, will each of them consist of an incipient or weak form of that nervous state which would have resulted had the motor change actually occurred. But such a succession of states constitutes remembrance of the various motor changes which thus become incipient—constitutes a memory. To remember the colour red, is to have, in a weak degree, that psychical state which the presentation of the colour red produces: to remember a motion just made with the arm, is to feel a repetition, in a faint form, of those internal states which accompanied the motion—is an incipient excitement of all those nerves whose stronger excitement was experienced during the motion. Thus then, the nascent nervous excitements that arise during this conflict of tendencies, are really so many ideas of the motor changes which, if stronger, they would cause—a recollection of such changes. And thus, Memory necessarily comes into existence whenever automatic action is imperfect.
This, however, is not all. It remains to be pointed out that by this process of development, there results in the organism not only a memory of its own movements and modes of action; but also of those complicated combinations of impressions which it receives through the senses. It is not simply that as the external groups of attributes and relations responded to become more and more complex, and by implication more and more infrequent, the answering psychical changes become more loosely connected with each other, and with the motor changes appropriate to them; and that so, the groups of impressions being less automatically coherent, a nascent memory of the component impressions becomes possible; but it is that the same progress which has given the ability to receive the complex impressions required to determine complex actions, has given the further ability to receive complex impressions which do not tend to determine any actions at all. That same evolution of the senses and the nervous system, which has given a capability of distinguishing many different kinds of enemies and prey, by the special combinations of attributes they severally present, has, by implication, given a capability of distinguishing among other things than enemies and prey. The power of co-ordinating the impressions of size, form, colours, motions, which stand for a particular animal, is likewise a power of co-ordinating the various impressions that stand for trees, plants, stones, and all surrounding things. The great majority of these surrounding things, however, have no immediate relation to the actions of the organism—are not habitually followed by any special motor changes; and therefore do not tend to excite motor changes. But while these multiplied and varied impressions produced by lifeless and motionless objects, have no direct connections with the actions, and do not tend automatically to arouse them; they have direct connections with each other, of all degrees of constancy; and, by consequence, have all degrees of the tendency to produce each other. While the absolutely persistent relations among external attributes, are responded to by inseparable relations of psychical states; the others, in all their various grades of persistency, are responded to by psychical states of all degrees of cohesion. It results, therefore, that of the impressions produced by adjacent objects during the movements of the organism, each tends to make nascent certain other impressions with which it has been connected in experience—calls up ideas of such other impressions; that is—causes a remembrance of the attributes previously found in connection with the perceived attributes. As these psychical states have in their turn been connected with others, they tend to arouse such others; and thus there arises that succession of ideas, partly regular, partly irregular, which we call Memory—regular in so far as the connections of external phenomena are regular; and irregular in so far as the groups of those phenomena occur irregularly in the environment.
§ 192. This truth, that Memory comes into existence when the connections among the psychical states cease to be perfectly automatic, is in complete harmony with the obverse truth, illustrated in all our experience, that as fast as the connections of psychical states which we form in Memory, become, by constant repetition, automatic, they cease to be part of Memory. We do not speak of ourselves as remembering those relations which have become organically, or almost organically registered; we remember those relations only of which the registration is not yet absolute. No one remembers that the object at which he is looking has an opposite side; or that a certain modification of the visual impression implies a certain distance; or that a certain motion of the legs will move him forward; or that the thing which he sees moving about is a live animal. It would be thought a misuse of language were any one to ask another whether he remembered that the sun shines, that fire burns, that iron is hard, and that ice is cold. Even the almost fortuitous relations are not spoken of as remembered, when they have become thoroughly familiar. Though, on hearing the voice of some unseen person slightly known to us, we speak of ourselves as recollecting to whom the voice belongs; we do not use the same expression respecting the voices of those living in the same house with us. And similarly, though, when a child, the reader's knowledge of the meanings of these successive words, was at first a memory of the meanings he had heard given to them; yet now, their several meanings are present to him without any such mental process as that which we call remembrance. Perhaps the most marked instance of the gradual lapse of memory into automatic coherence, is that seen in the musician. Originally, he was taught that each mark on the paper was called by a certain name, and implied that a particular note on the piano was to be struck; and during his first lessons, each recurrence of this mark was accompanied with a distinct process of recollecting which key on the piano he must strike. By long-continued practice, however, the series of psychical changes that occur between seeing the mark and striking the appropriate key, have coalesced into one almost automatic change. The visual impression produced by the crotchet or quaver; the consciousness of its position on the lines of the stave, and of its relation to the beginning of the bar; the consciousness of the place of the answering key on the piano; the consciousness of the muscular adjustments required to bring the arm, hand, and finger into the attitude requisite for touching that key; the consciousness of the muscular impulse required to give a blow of the due strength, and of the time during which the muscles must be kept contracted to produce the right length of note—all these states of consciousness which at first arose in a distinct succession, and thus formed so many recollections, ultimately constitute a succession so rapid that the whole of them pass through consciousness in an inappreciable time. As fast as they cease to be distinct states of consciousness—as fast as they, by consequence, cease to be represented in memory; so fast do they become automatic: the two things are two sides of the same thing. And thus it happens that the practised musician can continue to play while conversing with those around—while his memory is occupied with quite other ideas than the meanings of the signs before him.
Now the fact that the psychical states which in ourselves are originally connected by the process we call recollection, become, by continued repetition, connected automatically or instinctively, is manifestly the obverse of the fact, that as, by the complication of the instincts, the groups of connected psychical states grow more involved and are less frequently repeated, they must cease to be perfectly automatic, and memory must commence. Our inductive knowledge of the one fact, confirms our deduction of the other.
§ 193. Memory then, pertains to all that class of psychical states which are in process of being organized. It continues so long as the organizing of them continues; and disappears when the organization of them is complete. In the advance of the correspondence, each more complex class of phenomena which the organism acquires the power of recognizing, is responded to at first irregularly and uncertainly; and there is then a weak remembrance of the relations. By multiplication of experiences, this remembrance becomes stronger, and the response more certain. By further multiplication of experiences, the internal relations are at last automatically organized in correspondence with the external ones; and so, conscious memory passes into unconscious or organic memory. At the same time, a new and still more complex order of experiences is thus rendered appreciable; the relations they present occupy the memory in place of the simpler one; they become gradually organized; and, like the previous ones, are succeeded by others more complex still.
Thus, having in the last chapter seen that Instinct is interpretable on the experience-hypothesis, we now see that the experience-hypothesis explains the nature and genesis of Memory.