If Memory Serves

9 Minute Read

Or How the Brain Makes Room for the Mind

Like a Seurat painting, incremental change appears on the scene point by point. Trusting the big picture to take care of itself once our entire canvas has been thoughtfully dotted, we free our minds to focus on adding new colors.

Enlarged extract of La Parade due Cirque —Georges Seurat

What would you do with a brain if you had one?

Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, & Edgar Woolf, The Wizard of Oz

Ready, Set, Change:

Being and Becoming in Time Or the Conjugation of Changefulness
Where bb (being and becoming) = {am, think, feel, choose, leap}, and t (time) = {then, now, yet}…

I bb in t.

Atemporal Conjugations (I bb):
I am
I think
I feel
I choose
I leap

Temporal Conjugations (I bb in t):
I am then. I am now. I am yet.
I think then. I think now. I think yet.
I feel then. I feel now. I feel yet.
I choose then. I choose now. I choose yet
I leap then. I leap now. I leap yet.

Change Pattern Permutations (I bb in t->I bb in t->I bb in t->…):
I think then; therefore, I feel now; therefore, I choose yet; therefore, I leap now; therefore…

Got it?


On its surface, human identity and change seems pretty straightforward. If not sugar, spice, snips, and snails, our system of systems — think you and me — appears to be a mashup of a gazillion individual bits of, let’s just call them ‘stuff’. And for any system to function, for any new identity to emerge — after all, identity is nothing if not its own continuous alteration, either to persist or stray — all the bits must in all instances account.

In atmoic terms, identity — whether institutional or individual — is a massive enterprise. Which bits will refresh? Which will flip? What happens to identity and alteration if we miss one or two (or a million) of them? And if even a single piece of us puts its foot down? What then?


Like many of you, I have attempted to pick up a second language or two in my time. For my friends in France, Switzerland, several francophone African states, and island nations, the following exploration might seem pointless to you, even trivial. To my anglophones with no French it will seem like Greek. But please bear with me one and all, skimming only lightly if you must to get through it. As you will soon see, flash is the point of this assay of bias.

Learning college French, like a newcomer to English staring down the strange case of I before E except after C, I had a ‘Hugo’ of a time getting the hang of French irregular verbs. Most follow a common conjugation pattern. The first verb I learned — Parler (to speak) — set the standard for the 90% that followed.

Je parle – I speak
Tu parles – You (familiar) speak
Elle/Il parle – S/he speaks
Nous parlons – We speak
Vous parlez – You (formal) speak
Elles/Ils parlent – They speak

Other verb tenses — imparfait, passé simple, future simple, passé compsé, etc., — while they have their differences, manage to follow similar, predictable phonics, proving the adage that If you’ve said it once, you’ve probably said it a thousand times.

But for a few hundred French verbs, there appears to be no pattern at all. Consider Aller, the French workhorse meaning ‘to go’. Duplicating the conjugation pattern for Parler, we might expect of Aller to say:

J’alle – I go
Tu alles – You go
Elle alle – She goes

Mais nons-ohn-ohn, mes chers amis. For some raison tres bizarre, instead of conjugating the go-word in the more common way, the baited brain comes to a stop. For example, In English, To Go is conjugated using the first two letters of its infinitive: I go, you go, she goes, etc. It’s Go‘s all the way down. Not so for its French equivalent, Aller.

Je vais – I go (where the trained brain might first try ‘J’alle‘ instead)
Tu va – You go (Why not Tu alles?)
Elle va – She goes (Elle alle?)

But hold on. In a breath of sanity, here come the Al‘s.

Nous allons – We go
Vous allez – You go

Then back to V for Victory! (Or Viplash.)

Ils Vont – They go

And if To Go weren’t irregular enough for the French, how about the most French infinitive of all — To Be? In conjugating the present tense of Etre for his famous pronouncement, Descartes did not say,

Je pense, donc, J’et.” (I think, therefore I and.)

That’s because, like Aller, and its English equivalent, To Be, Etre is not only irregularly conjugated but spectacularly so.

Je suis – I am
Tu es – You are
Elle/Il est – s/he is
Nous sommes – We are
Vous etes – You are
Elles/Ils sont – They are

For the most irregular of all French verbs, it’s Stops all the way down.

But I was lucky. A friend of mine from the third grade suddenly appeared at university with six years of French under her bonnet. Liza (Gates) Dailey adroitly suggested that instead of trying to memorize all the different rules for French verbs, I follow the lead of the French painter Georges Seurat and take a pointillist approach.

“Don’t try to learn the irregulars the way you learned Penser (to think),” she advised. “They’re too weird, and there are too many of them. But if you pass your eyes over the complete list every day, even for a minute, your brain will eventually fill in the dots.”

Twenty-five years later, psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West coined the terms System 1 and System 21 to explain the way Liza had learned French (and drive a car and play the piano). The idea, as later fleshed out by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who would be awarded a Nobel Prize in quite irregularly — economics for his insights into how the mind makes memory, was that once the slower, more cognitive part of the brain encounters a novel idea a sufficient number of times, it moves the mastered concept into a faster, non-thinking (some have said emotional, even instinctive) alcove for processing. Kahneman borrowed Stanovich’s and West’s systems terminology to name the long-term, non-thinking storage tank System 1, and the newer, slower, deer-in-headlights, crunch-as-fast-as-you-can-and-don’t-forget-even-the-slightest-detail first look, slow as molases System 2.2

[ Note to my son David. Remember when, as a newly minted student driver, you signaled your first-ever left turn to depart Darnestown Road and enter the Fudrucker parking lot? The oncoming cars had a different idea, did they not? — charging straight at you as you leaned left on your way into the intersection. You were the deer in their headlights. System 2 in all its panicky processing glory. In time, once you had seen and successfully navigated enough left turns, System 2 let go of its here-we-go-again, one-off processing and handed off a compiled version that performed that same maneuver instinctively from then on. Think fully-developed muscle memory with no ‘thinking’ required and no spatial calculations cluttering the rest of the mind. Hooray for System 1! ]

But science is nothing if not inconstant. And in the July 2023 edition of Nature Neuroscience, four scientists stood on Kahneman’s shoulders to announce that before System 1 stuffs brain-muscle memories into hot storage, it breaks them up and sprinkles them across previously formed hard-fought beach heads of understanding.3 Like a pointillist painting, System 1 laces common knowledge into a previously knit blanket of broader intelligence.

According to the dominant theory of how memories are made, information initially processed by the cerebral cortex makes its way into the hippocampus for long-term storage during sleep when brain waves are especially slow and neuron firing alternates between sync and silence. (Think babies sleeping to let all that new stuff sink in.) But not in all cases. Mysteriously though new clues are emerging some information screened by System 2 never makes its way to the hippocampus. Instead, scientists now hypothesize that only exceptional data whose unique differences aid generalization is needed by System 1 in long-term memory. That’s because their sameness has long ago been catalogued as part and parcel of a generalization model.

Say you’re learning a foreign language, and your cerebral cortex comes across slight irregularities in the way some verb tenses are conjugated. Because the hippocampus already knows a lot about verb conjugation, rather than trying to memorize and then store all the individual exceptions, which will also mean storing redundantly the general, regular rules implicit in their baselines, the cerebral cortex and hippocampus perform a give-and-take ritual where the hippocampus accepts only the bits that update the already compiled ‘generalization base’— I’ll call it ‘GB’ for short. The next time the cerebral cortex encounters an exception to the GB, the dance repeats, spinning off into hippocampus storage only the novel, irregular bits that incrementally enrich its understanding. Over time, what we consciously think of as the brain — the cerebral cortex — appears to get smarter because the hippocampus GB has been pre-filled-in with, say, 99% of the base knowledge, leaving the cerebral cortex to compare and update only the novel 1%. The result? Lightning speed and a marginally, if subconsciously expanded long-term memory.


If there hasn’t been one made, it’s easy enough to imagine a horror movie whose chief conceit is that some well-meaning but half-mad scientist manages to steal and bottle Einstein’s brain-dead grey matter.4 Such a grotesque attempt to weigh, dissect, label, and thereby speculate that in being all there is to a mind, the brain must possess the secret of intelligence, is not only wrong-headed but too distateful for this mind to picture. (That’s why they call it ‘Horror‘.) Gasps aside, one need only consider that a brain severed from its enfolded nervous systemsthe spinal cord and all its tributaries, as well as the enteric nervous system (the gut-brain) — is a worthless, unsinkable toy boat anchor, to turn a perfectly stereotyped horror film into an absurd comedy.

There’s a story out there, probably an urban legend, of how when chided for not remembering his own telephone number, Albert Einstein quipped that it would be a waste of grey matter to store something so trivial when he could as easily write it down and store it elsewhere. The image might have inspired a kooky episode of the 1960s Batman television series whose hero lived a different Life of the Mind than the theoretical physicist who gave us E = mc.2 Early in a two-parter, when the caped crusaders are separated from the Bat Phone, the Boy Wonder can’t withhold his glee when Batman pulls Commissioner Gordon’s home number seemingly out of thin air.

“Holy Yellow Pages, Batman! How did you do that?”

“Well, Robin, some information is too important to trust to pen and paper.”

In the cliffhanger ending of part one of that Baptman episode, Riddler has strapped our hero to a torture device designed to suck the contents from Batman’s big brain. Missing the next day’s resolution due to baseball practice and never to learn definitively what became of Batman’s big brain, I came to my own conclusion. All Riddler was the Yellow Pages. Today, I would say that the only part of the brain accessible to Riddler’s torture device du jour was the uncompiled cerebral cortex. The hippocampus is not only totally locked down, its undecodable landscape is never more than a series of self-contained dots — Seurat initially used the term ‘divisionism’ to describe his painting technique — completely disconnected except through a story our mind concocts to hold them together.

Two enlarged extracts and the entirety of La Parade due Cirque —Georges Seurat

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

By now, our hippocampuses have formed a general model about how we change. But to our cerebral cortex, as with any foreign language first encountered, human being and change can appear complex, even weird, especially when considering the vastness of the problem space. To change something as small as a single physical habit, there is not just the body to consider. What about the heart? The will? The mind plays a part, of course. But which one? Present thoughts don’t stand alone but are inseparable from past memories and future intentions. But as complex as the system of systems we think of as our identity might seem, there are common, generalizeable patterns that emerge when each of our bits combines to form a whole. Like a language filled with irregular patterns, identity and change combinations can be mastered, if not all at once, eventually, over time.

The purpose of this post is not to explain those patterns, but to expose the cerebral cortex to the fact of their existence. Should we decide to glance this away again, as we might at a chart of French grammar, any change pattern not already compiled into our GB (the generalization base of our hippocampus) will appear there as a naked dot. Our brains are not just capable of remembering it, but painting it on our memory (hippocanvas?) in just the right spot to help complete the picture. With that in mind, let’s take one last look at one conjugation of how we change; not to learn it, it’s Greek after all. That’s why we have a hippocampus. But to remind our cerebral cortex that there is more to change than meets the eye.

Being and Becoming in Time – Or the Conjugation of Changefulness
Where bb (being and becoming) = {am, think, feel, choose, leap}, and t (time) = {then, now, yet}…

I bb in t.

Atemporal Conjugations (I bb):
I am
I think
I feel
I choose
I leap

Temporal Conjugations (I bb in t):
I am then
I am now
I am yet

I think then
I think now
I think yet

I feel then
I feel now
I feel yet

I choose then
I choose now
I choose yet

I leap then
I leap now
I leap yet

Change Pattern Permutations (I bb in t->I bb in t->I bb in t->…):
I think then; therefore, I feel now; therefore, I choose yet; therefore, I leap now; therefore…

… times a gazillion.

What’s not to remember?



  1. Stanovich K., West R., Individual differences in reasoning: Implications for the rationality debate? Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2000;23:645–726. 
  2. See Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow.
  3. Sun, W., Advani, M., Spruston, N., Saxe, A., & Fitzgerald, J. E. (2023). Organizing memories for generalization in complementary learning systems. Nature Neuroscience26(8), 1438-1448. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-023-01382-9
  4. This actually happened, though not as part of a horror film per se. When Einstein died in 1955 at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey, his brain was removed by pathologist Thomas Harvey, who preserved, photographed, and measured it. A colleague of Harvey’s then cut most of the brain into 240 blocks and mounted them on microscope slides, currently curated at the Mütter Medical Museum in Philadelphia.

One thought on “If Memory Serves

  1. Great thoughts here, Scott. In Italian, the Verb “To Go” is “andare.” It conjugates the simple present tense:

    Il vado                       First person singular
    Tu vai                        Second person singular
    Lui vai                       Third person singular
    Noi andiamo                  First person plural
    Voi andate                    Second person plural
    Loro vanno                   Third person plural

    As you can see, the irregular “V” words have wriggled their way into all but the first-person plural and the second-person plural. This is because the original verb for “To Go” in Latin was “Vadere.” That is also where the irregular forms in French originate.

    In your analogy, these are dots painted on the canvas without any real form or pattern. But wait, there’s more. Perhaps there is a pattern here. In both Italian and French, the “normal” conjugations are applied to the exact same first and second person plural.

    In Spanish, however, they stuck with all of the Latin-based conjugations:

    Yo voy
    Tu vas
    El va
    Nosotros vamos
    Vosotros vais
    Ustedes van

    What’s even more interesting is that the infinitive form of the verb “To Go” in Spanish is “Ir.” Where on earth did that come from?

    Language, like life, has many random dots.

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