Memory and Consciousness

Elson de Araújo Montagno, MD, PhD

It was a very interesting conversation in an unusual place, with an impressive person: Sir John Eccles, Australian neuroscientist and holder of the 1963 Nobel Prize of Medicine. The place was the Island of Mainau, of Count Bernadotte, in the Lake Constance, at the border between Switzerland, Germany and Austria. The meeting had 22 winners of the Nobel Prize of Medicine, in a conversation with young scientists working in Europe, in 1983.

Sitting around the table, we all heard this wise man, who had received the highest laurels in science. I had provoked him with scientific questions about the human mind and the brain. I knew how he could deal with the philosophical aspects derived from neuroscience, which he had contributed so much to establish. The interest of Eccles was centered on the problems of communication at the highest levels, those pertaining to the nature of a being who is able to perceive himself, that is, those of auto-consciousness.

Eccles closed the matter by writing two words on my pad, a challenge to continue the research about two topics: memory and consciousness. And he announced that Nobel prizes would be guaranteed to whoever would be able to explain the mechanisms of memory and consciousness, how he had done when he described the workings of synapses.

The synapse is a microscopic gap specialized in the communication between the nervous cells which transmits impulses across its fibers. Chemical substances named neurotransmitters leave the pre-synaptic membrane of the cell and carry the impulse of energy and information. Thus, stored in this common space between two cells, the molecules elicit the excitation of the membrane in synaptic contact with it.

A single nerve cell sends, by means of its synapses, impulses to more than 10 thousand other cells, simultaneously. For example, when it leaves the spinal cord, the impulse which is necessary to flex the fingers has to reach the nerve that goes to the muscle, which, by contracting, induces the flexion of the finger. There is a synapse connecting the nervous cell of the spinal cord to the nerve that goes to the finger. This synapse is just one among the thousands of elements and structures that exist between the consciousness to move the finger and the memory on how to do it, using billions of nervous cells and trillions of synapses.

When Eccles carried out the investigations that permitted our understanding of the workings of the synapse, he believed that this discovery would contribute substantially to the solution of the brain-mind problem: neuronal systems forming and operating continuously interacting dynamic loops of immense variability and complexity, thus making possible human consciousness. He firstly worked under the charm of synapses and then he turned to the mysteries of the brain and the connections of the nervous system with consciousness.

If you are an attentive reader you must have perceived that to jump from the microscopic synapse to the cosmopolite consciousness with its anthological memory, is not didactic. But it is, in this way, that the biological impulses jump around inside the most extraordinary structure ever known to us, the human brain. And this has been so for a long time: memory and consciousness; ideas jumping between our enormous number of neurons. Although we are not after the highest award of manís science, to govern the life within us and to take care of the lives which depend on us, it is our challenge, our award.

Once I wrote that human beings are like cells for our living world. Consciousness and memory are intangible, lifelike realities, which amaze and impel humankind, and not only neuroscientists. We forge today a planetary consciousness that will allow us to continue to live as a species.

The memories of past ways and doings is what assures us that we are going to use our consciousness for the command of techniques which will allow our future survival. Memory is the true hidden government of the world. We have doubled our lifespan and multiplied our population many times over, in the milennium which is ending now. Consciousness and memory, which arise from the work of synapses magnificently interconnecting a uncountable number of cells in our body, have been responsible for generating all science and technology. With our memories, we establish the priorities and the true politics, improving and chiseling our consciousness. Today, it is community-oriented, society-oriented; tomorrow, it will be cosmopolite, planetary. Thus, we maintain and evolve life in our world, leaving behind the predatory unconsciousness which has permitted us to ascend to the top of the food chain. On the expenses of stealing the future, we have allowed until now the destruction of brothers and sisters, the extinction of animals, plants, waterfalls and forests. The working music of billions of synapses is what causes us to know when the action is complete.

Let the body, with its synapses, be the true connection with consciousness and memory. After all, a cell, a person, a country, a world like ours, all they need memory in order not to forget its priorities: health, education, safety, transportation and food. Memory is necessary, so that we do not get loose in our strain for survival and so that we do not perpetuate the forgetting of true priorities.

Turning back to the meeting at Mainau: close to my ear, Sir John Eccles made the following question, which was promptly answered by himself: "Do you know why I went to study the brain? To understand myself". When I met him that day, he was already a wise man.

Elson de Araujo Montagno is a neurosurgeon, doctor of Medicine by the Free University of Berlin, a former visiting professor of Harvard University, and a former professor of the Faculty of Medical Sciences of the University of Campinas (unicamp) (Brazil).

Center for Biomedical Informatics
Elson de Araújo Montagno, MD, PhD

Copyright 1997 State University of Campinas