Memory is not a 'copy' of reality. The past is not in our memory. It is there as little as the future is. The mind is present activity. Contents that mind produces, about what has already happened or what might happen, are the result of its activity, they are not the mind. Brands of memory remain with some of our experiences, but the fact we want to see in these brands the reality itself or a reproduction of it is due to the bias of our anthropocentric and psychologizing vision, by which we replace the world by the contents of thought.
Our mind does not work like a computer, says R. Epstein. Our brain actually is not an information store. Our brain, strictly speaking, does not process information nor recovers knowledge nor saves memories. The computer is just a metaphor. What the brain does, more or less, is to resonate with reality; it is like a soundboard that, as everything, operates in the present, not in the past or in the future. It works in the physical present, with elements existing in the present, with the energies now existing which act now on our body. There are, at present, brands that were created in the past, it is clear, but they are there as in any physical reality; they exist because they occurred sometime in the past, but they exist now, they simply do not 'represent' nothing more than what they themselves are in the present. They exist as exist traces of temporary events in our physical environment. They are not any replica of the past, they are only a trace of time on something that existed in the past and still exists now, some form of brand in an existing structure. They can determine reality in some respects, contribute something to resonating the brain with the world around, it is true, because, they exist in the present (which is the only way to exist), they are part of reality, but they are not a world in themselves: they are a 'brand' that can be very discreet. The rest is the product of the process, the result of our mental activity: thinking, fantasy... mental contents.
Jose Ortega y Gasset said: "Life is always a 'now' and consists of what now is. The past of your life and the future of it have only reality now, thanks to you remember your past or anticipate your future now. In this sense life is punctual, is a point: the present, which contains all our past and our whole future. So I could say that our life is what we are doing now." (p. 39)
Just to point out that 'remember the past and anticipate the future' are mental contents, mostly fantasy so. What we remember of the past is not the 'reality' of the past, is not the reality that occurred in a passed present; in any case, is what we now interpret in the present, which may differ from what we interpret later, and it is therefore an experience that simply happens now. These elaborations of memory are imagination, fantasy, they change with time; they are not an objective reality but pure subjectivity.
We see it clearer if we refer to the future. The reality that finally happens in the future rarely is similar to the future we think, to the forecasts we imagine. Are things as we imagine? Absolutely not. What will happen in the future is unpredictable. We try to predict what might happen, but the way the concrete fact happens never fully fits with what we imagined. In any case, we adapt our expectations to what is happening. Simply, the present reality is always changing: this is the fundamental fact of our existence.
Knowledge, then, is not within our brain. It is more out of us than inside. Knowledge is 'reality'. It is shown in the reality we perceive. Knowledge is a phenomenon that occurs when our brain interacts with environmental stimuli and energies. In fact, this phenomenon of interaction is both reality and knowledge.
Consider the following paragraph from Ortega y Gasset:
"A moment ago, when I paid attention to certain words I did not heed me as not ‘heed’ the bench or the chair where I sit, and yet, me and the bench existed for me, were in some way in front of me. The proof of this is that if someone had moved the bank I had noticed that something in my situation had changed, that something was not the same as in the previous moment. Which means that I was aware of the bench and its position; I count on the bench. When we go down the stairs we are not aware of each step, but we count on all of them; and in general, we are not aware of most of the things that exist for us, but we count on them." (p. 41)
Bench and stairway, with its exact position, with each of its steps, with great detail, exist outside of us. The information is in the surrounding environment. The brain, with its structure and marks that time has left in it (memory), resonates with the surrounding information. It searches and finds outside the information that is useful and practical. Memory brands act as hooks that stick to the elements of the environment and extract the information load from there. Memory brands are basically links with the world, but not the world.
The information is at hand in the environment, it is not necessary to saturate the memory, because we can dig out, in what is nearby, search there. We deal with it, we select it, we look for it. And we display our actions and our behavior with what we encounter we are looking at every moment. What are in our memory circuits are marks that time has left, or, if you make a concession to psychologizing thought, we can say that is a kind of sketch or discrete map, but not reality. These personal traces can link us with reality in a certain way, they make a way to behave, to investigate and to evolve in our environment. But such marks are linked with the information of the surrounding world, and they are activated and act reciprocally with it. 'Reality', then, is what we experience when we behave with this elemental memory map within the overflowing information environment, content filling our experiences.
Memory links work through the mechanism of attention. Attention "takes an object from a plurality of the confusing rest and narrows it, highlights it" (p. 40). When an object that is simply there, and we know it only vaguely (eg bench or steps of the stairway), gets 'engage' with the scheme of our reality and our action, we heed it , we become interested on it in a concrete manner, it passes to form part of our action. But the object is out there, we do not incorporate it into our mind, we just interact with it. Our mind does not accumulate experiences but participates in them.
Consciousness is feeling more than just memory, is to realize things from outside and from within us, is feeling and living. It is a primary and essential knowledge, which has to do primarily with everything one feels and senses at every moment. Consciousness has more to do with feeling the body, feeling a toothache for example, that making an 'intellectual' task. Not that consciousness has to do with feeling, but that is basically it, is to feel and sense yourself and things around you.
Ortega y Gasset said: "To live is what we do and what happens to us from thinking or dreaming or playing the stock market or win battles. But, properly understood, nothing of what we do would be our life if we wouldn’t realize it. This is the first decisive attribute that we encounter: live is that strange, unique reality that has the privilege to exist by itself. All living is living oneself, feeling oneself, knowing to exist oneself, where knowledge does not imply intellectual knowledge or special wisdom, but is this surprising presence that life has for everyone: without this knowing, without this noticing, toothaches wouldn’t hurt us." (p. 42)
This awareness, this feeling and feel oneself in a certain way is what moves us to take or maintain an activity or another, to search and select one information or another in the environment, to reason and make decisions. The action of thought is to manage what we feel, the way we are in the world (and their results are ideas or mental contents).
Consciousness is to feel oneself and the world around oneself, we say. But it is true that we do not usually notice ourselves, our body, although we always necessarily feel it, and we should always count on it, because it is always there. Our mind, it seems, is so tied to the body and our internal states and feelings, which confuses with itself. Consciousness creates thoughts, emotions, volitions, illusions from how the body is and what we feel from it. The mind counts on the body and is inseparable from it, necessarily feels it, but only heeds on it when sensations exceed, for some reason, the 'normal' (in the case of toothache, for example). That's when we look at the body, and interpret pain, disease... But if body stimulation is not high enough or abnormal, we confuse what we feel of the body with what we think, and there arise our emotions, motivations, decisions, impulses, even character. With these psychological processes we manage our bodily states. In fact, these processes can genuinely be understood as the mechanisms of management of internal stimulation, that is, of the life of our body.
"What is given to me when life is given to me is the inexorable need to do something. Life is an ever have, willy-nilly, to do something. The life that has been given to me is that I have to do it. It is given to me, but not given me done, as the star or the stone are given to them and their existence is fixed without problems. What is therefore given to me with life is work. Life gives a lot to do. And the fundamental of tasks is to decide at every moment what we will do in the next. So I say that life is decisive, is decision. (...) If I have to decide what I'll do, I meant that life always puts me against various possibilities to do. When leaving here I can do many different things, at least several. Among them I have to decide." (pp. 47-48)
A key element of mental function is that we do not know or act directly on our body, but we manage what we feel in our bodies in an indirect way, taking concrete surrounding environment elements much further than its organic origin. Our body creates a 'background noise' that is always there, a diffuse continuum of usually 'not conscious' feelings (not conscious because we do not isolate them from the rest of stimuli with attention, we do not bleed them) that determines the way we relate to the world. We do not bleed them normally, it is true, yet it is impossible not count on them, their presence is inevitable, because we are, above all, our body. Our body is the main element of our situation, Ortega y Gasset would say.
"Man usually bleeds nothing less than himself, yet with nothing counts more consistently than himself. I always exist for me, but only occasionally am aware of me as such." (p. 41)
Our own body, as we see, is not usually a content of our consciousness, a result of mental action, but is, on the contrary, the origin of such action. What becomes mental content is everything around the body that can affect it in one way or another. Thus, man's attention is set mainly in the environment in which it operates. The body itself brings sensitivity, but little knowability. Do not forget the information is in the environment, not within us. We are the machine that interprets and searches but not the information itself (nor the mental content, although very often we think otherwise because we identify with what we think). Man feels the body but seeks the information outside. He cannot and doesn’t know how to directly operate on the body itself; he has almost no control on it (except on the muscles, of course).
We are designed to look outside us. Useful and practical to our action, what might happen, is outside of us, not inside us. We do not know how 'to act internally'. Our behavior is developed outwards, even though the ultimate goal of such behavior, as happens in most cases, is somehow to affect the internal state that created it. We can say, in short, that we are in symbiosis with what surrounds us: the environment is an extension of our body. We seek and we project outside according to what we feel inside. Constantly we confuse what we feel in our body with what is out there. Our life, apparently, is to project how we feel to the world around us; we live outside ourselves; the outside is what constantly occupies our consciousness.
"Being in a situation or in the world is constitutive of my life; man exists outside himself, in the other things, in a foreign country, not at times and occasionally, but always and essentially. To live is to exist outside oneself, being outside, thrown oneself, consigned to the other things. Man is, by nature, outsider, emigrated, banished." (p. 54)
What is outside is content of thought; however what is within our own organism, is not. What is inside is what dyes, modulates or create thought, is running thinking. It is the precise now of the action of thinking, unlike what is thought, which, as a result of the action, belongs to the scope of the past (albeit very recent past). Thought inevitably has a delay. The current thinking is running, is action itself, is reality, is what we are engaged with the action of our body. What is thought is knowledge, is the meaning of a self that is in the world, is the content of our experiences. Such content does not refer to our body as it is, or to its instant action on the environment, but we refer it to our subjective experience, and it conforms our self and conforms the world as we perceive them. They are the image that remains of the activity of thinking, a kind of echo of a few seconds delay. With these contents, which we produce and they identify us, we substitute the objective world by subjectivity of thought.
"It is necessary to distinguish between the executive being of thought or consciousness, and objective being. Thinking as executivity, as something running and while running is no object to itself, does not exist to itself. Therefore, it is incongruous to call it thought. For there to be a thought is necessary it has already been executed and I contemplate it from the outside, I make it an object to me." (p. 118)
Ortega y Gasset, J. Obras completas. Tomo XII. Alianza. Madrid. 1983.
Epstein, R. (18 may, 2016): The empty brain. AEON essays. Recovered from https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer