12.09.2003

The start of something old. More on memory.

Torc and Lorc finish off their meals. Its been a small respite from the discussion on sleep, but Torc is still very confused about sleep and memory, and Lorc seems all too willing to help him understand that there is more to life than closing your eyes and lying around the forest like a couple of lazy dwarves.

Torc: Well, that was tasty. Nothing like a few nicely cooked rorbats to make an orc feel satisfied.

Lorc: So does that mean you are going to take a nap? Holy nibelungen! All you think of is sleep.

Torc: I know, I know. You just told me that the real reason for sleeping is to clear out the mind so that we can put more in, but I just put more in! More rorbat! Tasty too!

Lorc: Very funny.

Torc: So what are you going to do?

Lorc: I think we should go for a hike and do a little research.

Torc: Research what? We aren’t scientists. We are orcs. We gooble up good guys.

Lorc: Yeah, yeah. Cut with the drama. Let’s get serious and go do some research. I suggest we head back to the dungeons and talk to our colleagues about what they remember and what they forget.

Torc: Is this related to the stuff you were telling me about sleep?

Lorc: Yup. In fact, you might find it interesting yourself. Lots of the stuff you are always telling me you have forgotten, is actually just a small reach away for you, and it would only take some discipline to find it.

Torc: Small reach? Do you mean I really can remember everything that you’ve been asking me and telling me all these boring months?

Lorc: Very funny, lardbut. But yes. Your memory is more impressive than you give it credit. Everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste has been stored away for safe keeping. It is the same for all of us.

Torc: Oh yeah, like you were saying about the person whose life flashes before their eyes….

Lorc: Yes. Our brain stores all of this input and we retrieve it as needed.

Torc: So how does it store this stuff? Little boxes?

Lorc: Sort of. Think of the brain as a set of billions of little highways and roads. Some are longer and wide than others, and some are quite small, but all of them intersect with each other some or many times. It’s a real spaghetti jumble in some ways.

Torc: Spaghetti? Are we eating again?

Lorc: No silly. I’m stuffed.

Torc: (disappointed) oh.

Lorc: Our mind is full of these pathways, these neurons.

Torc: Whose that? A relative of Storkon?

Lorc: No. Neurons are nerve cells. They look like large spiders with legs out in all directions, and a center section where important stuff happens. Their legs or arms are stretched out in many directions, basically touching other neurons. They communicate with each other by signaling across a very small gap using chemicals. Those chemicals are secreted by the neurons in some concentration designed for a particular result, and the other neuron’s arms detect those chemicals and react in a certain way.

Torc: So the chemicals do the signaling?

Lorc: Sort of. It’s a combination of chemicals and electricity. Our senses are involved in all of this too. They send signals to our brain from the interactions they have with the outside world. If I see something, it causes a reaction in my eyes, and my eyes send a signal to the brain, where that signal it stored for use later on. Perhaps as a short-term memory, and perhaps as a long-term memory associated with learning something or meeting someone.

Torc: So my tongue was sending lots of signals this afternoon during that rorbat lunch! Great taste, just less filling! Are you sure we can’t have some spaghetti?

Lorc: Jeesh! What a mind you have.

Torc: (drooping his head) Sorry.

Lorc: Your memory is very sophisticated, even though it might not seem so. Those neurons are storing your life’s experiences, and making it easy for you to retrieve them for emergencies, for story telling, for your growth, etc. Those neurons, functioning like a muscle which is remembering how to throw a spear, remember the signals they were asked to send and receive, and they can send and receive them again, in sequence, to recover information we store in the brain.

Torc: Hmmm. Sounds easy enough, but I still don’t get the way I can remember stuff, and I always remember it different from you. I thought our brains were alike.

Lorc: Well they are, and yet there are differences. We all have the neural construct, and we have the senses that feed them, but we all see a little differently, and we hear differently, and so our brains receive somewhat different signals of differing intensities, and they store an incident a little differently than our friends do. Some orcs see well, and some are as blind as goblins. What they store away goes through an identical process, but the qualitative information is different because the quantitative signal characteristics were different.

Torc: Huh? You’re losing me.

Lorc: Well, you and I look at the same tree over there, and our brains store it differently. Perhaps not too differently, but the details will be different. The tree will have many similar memory characteristics in your mind as it does in mine. Where it was, what day it was, the sunlight, the green leaves, the height. But it might be a different shade of green in your mind because your eyes see green differently. Its like being color blind, but not completely. You see the green color and the actually light frequency given off by the tree creates a signal in your eyes, on your retina, that is slightly different from the signal my eyes make when sending it to the brain.

Torc: That explains how you missed that rorbat when we were shooting earlier. You must be blind!

Lorc: Perhaps. Maybe just not as hungry as you!

Torc: That’s for sure!

Lorc: Anyway, once the signal is received in our senses, a reaction takes place, both chemical and electrical, that transfers it to the brain. Our brain stores it in short-term memory until a REM segment, and then the brain parcels it out into this massive associative matrix of neurons and makes sure it is indexed in multiple ways so that it can be retrieved quickly. Those indices are what make us experience the wild swings in our dreams, the non-sequiturs.

Torc: Non-sequitur. Is that Middle Earth language again?

Lorc: No, but it is Middle ages. The non-sequiturs are the unusual turns of activity that our dreams seem to make as the brain indexes each experience and ties it to others of like characteristics based on our brain’s learned filter mechanisms. Once everything is stored away, using long, complex neuronal signaling to establish a memory n-gram chain, our brain can then use this chain, and the indexing, to locate thoughts and ideas, and experiences we have had in the past to solve problems.

Torc: n-grams? What is with you and all this hocus-pocus language? If I didn’t know better I would have guessed you were sniffing ent-poop!

Lorc: Ha! We have been in the forest for a while, haven’t we?! Perhaps we need to get going.

Torc: But wait. Are you telling me that our brains use this spaghetti to store all the stuff we learn?

Lorc: Yes. Those neurons, (and we have billions of them) are the little memory pathways that we use to store and retrieve information. It is their unique multi-layer indexing and retrieval capabilities that make the storage of our sensory data so complex, and yet so powerful. It is kind of like a 3-D chess board, with many levels, and a small connector running from every square on each board to most of the other squares on the other boards. Very complex looking and very sophisticated in its ability to store very discreet and marginally different pieces of information in virtually the same space. Also, since our signaling tools (the eyes, the nose, the ears) are so unique, we are not at all compatible in how we store the data. For instance, I couldn’t just transplant your eyes into my head, or my head onto your shoulders. The signals and the voltages and chemical reactions would all be too different to be useful.

Torc: Well, that’s a relief. I was worried about that brain transplant Snorkon has been offering me!

Lorc: With smell being one of the most sophisticated senses, we use very long path lengths in the neural pathways to store a smell. This means it is indexed much more heavily than, say, a sound, or a touch. It also means that smelling something can put you in touch with more memory locations and you can access more information just from that one memory trigger, than from hearing a sound.

Torc: Just the smell of that rorbat got me thinking of only one thing! Eating and sleeping!

Lorc: You are impossible. I can’t teach you anything.

Torc: That’s not true, really. I remember everything you told, me. At least, you tell me I do! Haha! Seriously, I remember that this sleep thing is different than I thought, and perhaps I should think about experimenting with my sleep times so that I have more time to get into trouble!

Lorc: That’s you alright!

10.31.2003

The start of something old.

Two orcs sit in a grove of ents. One orc is complaining of not getting enough sleep. The other orc, a mister know-it-all, is saying that the first orc, Torc, is probably getting too much sleep, and that he needs to rethink his whole sleep cycle. Torc, responding to Lorc, says this is nonsense. He is constantly yawning, and always grumpy.

Torc: How can you sit there and talk about sleep cycles? I am tired and grumpy, and I just know that I need some more rest.

Lorc: You don't need more rest. You need more REM sleep. Our bodies are not made to lie in bed for 8 hours each night, still and stiff, waiting for the inevitable 90 minutes of REM to sneak up on us. You need to listen for your circadian rhythms, and sleep when your body tells, you, not when Storkon tells you.

Torc: Circadian rhythms?

Lorc: Yes. Three or four times a day, in Middle Earth, each of us has a period of time when we are susceptible to sleep. Its based on our brain's capacity for managing the sensory input.

Torc: Input?

Lorc: Yes, your five senses take in all sorts of data during the day. The brain puts all this in short-term memory, or as we say in Binarian, high-speed cache. This portion of the brain is only so big, and when its full, your brain requests a timeout (some REM) so that it can sort all this cool new stuff into long-term filing cabinets in the brain.

Torc: By the five senses you mean sight, taste, hearing, touch, and smell?

Lorc: Yes. Each sense captures all input from the outside world as it comes in, in raw format. Each of us does that marginally differently as we have different quality of sight, or hearing, or touch, for instance.

Torc: Yes, I lost my glasses in that last run through the forest. I hate it when that happens.

Lorc: Anyway, once the brain has reached the top of the 'glass', and high-speed cache is full, the brain asks for time to sort all this out through all our filters and value mechanisms, things we have learned throughout life, and throughout our various learning episodes.

Torc: Filters?

Lorc: Yes. We learn various behavioral, ethical, moral, and reactive methods and techniques for coping, and for making sense of the world. We learn these from our parents, our friends, our enemies, our senses. These help us manage our experiences, and help us sort them logically so that they can be used later. Some sort of intellectual capital management system, I believe.

Torc: That's a mouthful! Ease up.

Lorc: Once the brain has signalled the need for rest (REM) we need to shut our eyes, stop what we are doing, and allow the brain to move enough of this raw data from short-term memory to long-term memory, complete with detailed associations, and then we can awake, and continue. The brain does this several times a day, not once as most orcs believe.

Torc: Associations?

Lorc: Yes, the linking of thoughts, experiences, and information to other bits of material in the conscious being, so that it can be retrieved later based on the widest variety of contexts. It is what allows us to remember virtually everything we have experienced.

Torc: But I can't remember anything my mother Minimorc did for me until I was about five years old. How can that be?

Lorc: When you are young, your filtering, and associative mechanisms in the brain are quite primitive. This means that the bulk of what you store away in long-term memory is in fragments, almost identical to the raw data you took in through your senses, in your short-term memory. Only when you develop some conscious behaviors, and some self-realization are you in the process of developing the sophisticated filters and techniques that your brain will need to sort things into rational buckets for later retrieval.

Torc: I have heard that when an orc falls off a cliff, he sees his life pass before his eyes.

Lorc: Exactly. All of what you have experienced is actually in there, but sometimes it is just to hard to retrieve. Material that has been sorted into memory through REM activity is much easier to retrieve. Material stuffed into memory through a lack of REM, and an overflow of highspeed cache, is fragmented and tough to find, but it is in there.

Torc: Then what explains the vision of everything?

Lorc: Your brain is a complex organism, subject to all the requirements of biologic limits. It has a homeostatic protocol to manage the best operating conditions. Temperature is one issue. If we had all cells in the brain working full speed at the same time, we would need a castle the size of Storkon's to cool it. The brain limits this activity. Just look at your muscles when you exercise. They get warm don't they?

Torc: Yes, and sometimes I get cramps!

Lorc: Well, that warmth comes from the cell doing its work, and if the brain's cell's were all turned on at once, it would be mighty difficult to keep it at optimum temperature. A fever, for instance, is not something the brain handles well.

Torc: But if the orc who falls off the cliff can see everything, does that mean his brain is completely turned on?

Lorc: Most likely. Falling off a cliff is a life-threatening event, fight-or-flight type of stuff. The brain is saying, "hey, here is every available idea and trick, and you have 33 seconds to solve this falling problem or we are dead dorcks." The brain is giving you access to everything you need to solve this problem, and the resultant temperature issue is moot, since in about 33 seconds, things will be awkward, if you get the point! Ouch. So, who cares about a little extra heat, eh!?

Torc: Interesting. I didn't know that. So what about all this stuff stored in the brain? Aren't there limits?

Lorc: Probably, but not as we know them. Remember, everything is stored into associative patterns, criss-crossing neurons, with their dendritic and axonal connections. Just tracing one particular thought or idea, or experience, can cross hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of other items stored in the memory for retrieval. This means components of the brain, unlike sectors on a disk drive, can be reused countless times, in countless different paths that represent some unique item stored for future retrieval by our REM mechanisms.

Torc: Disk drive. Oops...you are getting technical on the audience. Ease up or the Leith police will dismisseth us.

Lorc: Yup. OK. So, here is the next cool part of this. Virtually no one in Middle Earth has some good explanations for sleep and why we do it or why we need it. Even the experts, as demented as they are, have openly admitted this. BUT, they are missing the boat. Its right before their eyes. (although perhaps theirs are closed in sleep....not REM though.) Here: diurnal, nocturnal, solar system, adaptations.

Torc: What's all that gibberish? Are you losing it?

Lorc: The animal kingdom is a feast of adaptations, mechanisms that animals have sprouted over the years genetically, and behaviorally, to adapt to their surroundings, and to survive. Deer, nocturnal for the most part, have different eyes, and spend their nights using this eyesight to protect them from harm, and to roam the territory they frequent, to search for food. Cats have nocturnally optimal eyes also. They love to hunt and play at night. Many animals, have adaptations that support swimming, or flight, or vision, or other survival needs. The orc is interesting.

Torc: Well of course we are. We can chew through all sorts of fleshy creatures and relish every last bite.

Lorc: Perhaps. But we don't have any major nocturnal or diurnal adaptations. Our biggest asset is our brain, and we have lost the ability to manage its most important coping mechanism, REM sleep. At least 2-3 times a day, we ignore the signals to sleep, and we stuff all that good material we took in, into long-term memory in a fragmented way.

Torc: You mean when we get tired and we can't think straight?

Lorc: Yes. Imagine going to Mordor for the first time. You stay in a nice hotel, visit the canals, shop for ghoulish pastries, and you see so many things that are unique and new. Its no wonder you are tired by lunchtime. But, you soldier on, eat something tasty, ignore the post-prandial coma signals, and traipse around all afternoon, enjoying the sites and sounds of the city. Evening comes and you can't believe how tired you are.

Torc: Exactly! That very thing happened to me last week when I visited my wife's city. All sorts of cool stuff, but by evening I was bushed.

Lorc: True. Your brain had filled high-speed cache, spilled over into long-term memory, and had given you several signals to slow down, rest a few minutes, and sort everything out logically, so that you could use it all later easily.

Torc: Does this explain why some people sleep more or less?

Lorc: Perhaps. Newborns sleep much more because EVERYTHING is new to them, AND they have no filtering and sorting mechanisms built up to put this material into long-term memory in anything other than small fragments. Once reason why its so hard to retrieve that stuff from your early years. Older folks sleep less because they have seen it all, or seen it many times, and so it doesn't have to be stored with quite the same formality. But, even older folks will need sleep when you send them on a new adventure, and everything they see and experience is new. Its all about filling up that short-term memory and getting the signal to get some REM sleep.

Torc: You mentioned the sense earlier. Are there differences in how they affect our need for sleep?

Lorc: Sure. In fact, there are some very interesting issues with this. When someone sleeps, their hearing is working, but their smell is turned off. That is why Herry and Derry burned to death in their kiln last week, because they could not smell the smoke before it overcame them. But many orcs can remember a doctor's conversation during an operation, even after anesthetic.

Torc: That's spooky. Hope they aren't chasing the nursorcs!

Lorc: Also, we shut our eyes during sleep, so that we can reduce the rate the high-speed cache is filling up. Smell is also off. AND, in REM sleep, the body is mostly paralyzed, so that the REM material is not acted out in any way that might be harmful.

Torc: Sleepwalking?

Lorc: Precisely. Supposedly, there are even some new treatments being evaluated for amnesiacs where their reintroduction to their memory matrix is effected through smelling prior smells that have meaning to them. Since there seems to be evidence that smells are stored in neural pathlengths that are substantially larger than any other sensory input, this makes sense.

Torc: So you can't sleep with your eyes open?

Lorc: Nope, not really. Even the brain is not that fast, and it needs some respite from the input it is receiving so that REM activities can create and store these neuronal items for later use. Cutting off the highest bandwidth sources of input like smell and sight are key to this.

Torc: You know, listening to you, I am getting a little sleepy myself. What do you say, we head down to Quiznose and get a subcreature for a quick snack?

Lorc: Sounds good to me. Nothing new about that though.....

Torc: Once we eat, you can tell me more about memory.