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The processes of memory

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by S.N. Arseculeratne

This essay was prompted by my recollection of the name of a person whom I met 60 years ago. I had no cause to recall his name since we met; it was an unusual name Claude LeGris. But today it suddenly surfaced, without any linkages or levers for recall.

I am not a psychologist but a microbiologist. But as I point out later, there are concepts in this subject which relate to this topic, and which led me to my readings in the literature. My readings and research in this subject have given me insights into what memory is. Memory is the store of names and events that we have encountered, and is the main-spring of all our subsequent thoughts and actions. French philosopher Rene Descartes’ famous comment “Cogito, ergo sum”, (I think, therefore I am)…“. Thinking is the basis of our lives. It is the hub of this essay. My dependence on memory in my professional work and in my daily life have compelled me to consider the subject of ‘Memory”.

Memory for me, has always been an intriguing subject which was at the centre of my academic activities including lectures to my students and writings. One of my books has the title “I think, therefore I am – Rene Descartes.”; and I continue to think about this problem. It has been estimated that the capacity of the human mind is 200,000 facts. but how that was ascertained I do not know.

As a microbiologist and immunologist, I am aware that the word “memory” is important as in immunological memory in dealing with immunization and protection against microbial agents and medical people use various strategies with protective vaccines. Immunization of a kid allows this person to recall the relevant or related bug years later when these bug comes into the body and this is the basis of immunization to prevent microbial diseases. Linkages to events or names or persons are critical in the processes of memory. An aid to recall is a link between the item to be remembered and something else associated with it, a sort of lever. If I feel that an important fact might be forgotten, I attach a link to it as much as an immunologist who deals uses adjuvants that are combined with the antigen for enhancement of the response to them.

When a forgotten item comes back into mind, how do we how that it is the correct item? We have a ‘sensor’ in the mind that tells us that it is what we wanted to remember. Before the forgotten item resurfaces, one has a vague feeling of what the forgotten item is before it comes back into live memory but the ‘sensor’ confirms its validity.

Memories lie buried in our memories for a long time. It is astounding that some people are known to remember even their past lives, which the US Professor Ian Stevenson has written about. My attempts to recall memories sometimes fail, but suddenly, in my experience about half an hour later when attempts have ceased, they suddenly surface. Forgetting of names, rather than events, in my experience is predominant, probably because a name is a single item whereas an event runs into several words.

Aids to recall are firstly the letters of the alphabet and then the vowels, as a trigger to the memory. The letter is first repeated in your mind and when you come upon the correct name, you identify it, saying “Ha, I got it.”

The subject of Mnemonics, concerns devices or learning techniques that aid retention or retrieval of human memory. The Web defines it as ” A tool that helps to remember certain facts or large amounts of information”.

As I said above, I owe my ideas documented here to my training in immunology. The insights that immunology gave me as a microbiologist include the idea of immunological tolerance (the resistance to the development of an immune response), inhibition of immune responses, or promotion of immune responses with adjuvants or aids to the establishment of immunity. These immunological features have parallels in the processes of memory, notably selective loss of memory akin to failure of the immune response due to the individuals’ biology or defects in the immunizing agent.

In the process of my remembering or forgetting, the word itself but not its meaning came readily back to my mind. Another trick in recovering memories is to go down the alphabet and then the list of vowels following a noun. Retrieval of memory for lost items is helped with levers or links which connect the item to be remembered while the sensor mechanism confirms it validity. A notable fact is the presence of a ‘sensor’ in the mind that determines whether the remembered item is valid or not.

Loss of memory might be caused or aggravated by other psychological deficits, eg. Deafness. Two people were conversing and one said, “can you repeat what you said? I couldn’t hear you. The first chap said, “Sorry, I have forgotten what I said”. Sometimes my mind behaves like a sieve with extra holes in it.

For me the most amazing fact about my memory is that at my advanced age of ninety one, I sometimes find it difficult to recall an event or a name. However, after several minutes, the forgotten item flashes back into my memory, intact. I had no recourse to a link to the forgotten item. I did not even have to resort to my favourite device of going down the alphabet or list of vowels, which occasionally works.

Sigmund Freud the great psychologist- (1856-1939) was an Austrian, the founder of the science of psychoanalysis; he gave us an important fact. We sometimes forget not because of a failing mind or diseased brain but because we want to forget selectively. We have facts in our subconscious mind which we want to forget for being troublesome or embarrassing. It might be a miscreant who has defaulted on us or a particular event that is haunting. This means a ‘selective loss of memory’. Freud emphasized this fact.

Loss of memory (amnesia) paradoxically occurs to me even with recent events or names while distant ones are more easily remembered. This may be a matter of aging to ninety, with loss of memory as a physiological deficit due to the aging process. But Freud gave us a clue to the processes of memory and recall of facts; this is the occurrence of reasons for our forgetting of distasteful facts, events or persons; we need to forget them. A further discovery of psychologists is the ability to transfer memories from one person’s mind to another mind by the process of telepathy without the conventional means of documentation.

Dr. Siri Galhenage a psychiatrist sent me his responses to my essay. On Freud’s views, “… painful events from the past, he postulated, may be stored in one’s personal unconscious through the mechanism of repression – a special feature of his theory of psychoanalysis. Such suppressed memories, he believed, may present themselves as ‘neuroses’ such as hysteria. Psychoanalysis involves the release of such neuroses through ‘free association’ and helping the patient gain insight. The same was done by others through hypnosis or abreaction.

From a neurological point of view, the current thinking differentiates memory loss due to normal aging (Nominal Aphasia), forgetting of names being part of it, and due to a disease process such as Alzheimer’s Dementia. The latter is a more global process with the deterioration of personality functioning with loss of short term memory being a central feature.

My final word on this intriguing subject of memory is that the most painful disease I have had is not proctalgia (pain in the backside), nor myalgia (pain in the muscles) but nostalgia, the pain from painful memories or the loss of memories.

I conclusion and in support of what I have written was said by a Zen Buddhist parable, , “The mind is the fore-runner of all things”.



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Features

English in Mathematics

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By R.N.A. de Silva

 

“Which subject did you have most difficulties with, having switched the medium of instruction from Sinhala to English?” I posed this question to a Sri Lankan student who was following a pre-University course in an educational institution in Hong Kong, having completed studies up to the GCE Ordinary Level programme in the Sinhala medium in a leading girls’ school in Colombo. “It is definitely mathematics,” she replied. Having served as a teacher for a long period of time at this educational institution with students from over 80 countries, I realised the above-mentioned view was shared by other students, too, who had to change the medium of instruction to English. This does not seem to make sense as one would have expected mathematics to be the easiest subject to follow as it has its own symbolic language. Why then has this situation arisen?

I would like to separate these difficulties into two categories:

1. Hastiness due to mindset

2. Vocabulary issues

Sometimes hastiness can automatically occur due to the mindset that mathematics should be easy to follow even if you change the medium of instruction as you are dealing with symbols. This attitude can cause enormous problems as students may skip instructions or avoid reading the question fully and concentrate only on the symbolic part of the problem

As an example, consider the following question.

The graphs of lines 3y = 5x + 1 and 2y = 7 – 3x intersect at point P. Find the coordinates of P.

Seeing the word ‘graphs’ and the two equations, a student maybe tempted to draw the graphs of the two lines and thereby find the point of intersection, which is a time-consuming affair. If it was read properly, the student could have noticed that the solution can be obtained by solving the two equations algebraically, which is much more efficient.

To a fast reader, obtaining the correct answer to the following question can be a problem as it may end up with just finding the value of x.

If 2x+3 = 5x-3, find the value of 2x+3.

The students need to be trained to read the question fully and understand what is required to be done, before attempting it.

The time spent to grasp the aim of the question is not wasted time.

Many children consider mathematics as an alien language consisting of symbols and expressions. Most of the difficulties that students encounter is related to vocabulary. The mathematical interpretation of the meaning of a word may differ from the meaning given to it in the English language. The word ‘find’ in mathematics means to obtain an answer showing the working while in the English language, it refers to discover or search. The following sketch shows the funny side of this difference.

Two of the words that has caused much confusion are ‘or’ and ‘and’.

In general usage, A or B is considered as either A or B but not both, as shown in picture.

However, in mathematics ‘A or B’ means ‘it can belong to A or B including intersection’. This is shown in picture.

The above, in normal usage is interpreted as ‘A and B’. However, in mathematics A and B refers to only what is common to A and B as shown in picture.

Here are the mathematical meanings of some of the other words which can have a different meaning with the English language definitions.

Determine

– Obtain the only possible answer

Plot

– Mark the position of points on a diagram

Write down

– Obtain the answer (Working need not be shown)

Constant

– A number that does not change

Similar

– Having the same shape but not the same size

Deduce

– To show a result using known information

Operation

– A procedure such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc.

Element

– A member of a set

Volume

– The extent of space occupied by a solid

The following illustrate some of the difficulties that the difference of meanings brings:

How odd these odd numbers are? The even numbers are even stranger.

Don’t be mean and help me to find the mean of these numbers.

Is right angle the right answer? Let me write it on the board.

The polysemous nature of some of the mathematical terms make it confusing for the students in the understanding of mathematical concepts. Mathematical terms have precise definitions to describe numerical relationships. At times these definitions resemble the everyday usage meaning but there are instances where the definitions notably differ. Consider ‘in general’ as an example. In mathematics there can be no exceptions to a result if it is considered to hold in general. However, in everyday usage, if a claim is said to be true in general, it would mean that it is true most of the time, but exceptions are possible.

To add to the problem, there are some terms such as ‘degree’ that can have many different meanings within mathematics while having a different meaning in everyday use. In mathematics, degree can refer to the measurement of an angle, the complexity of an algebraic equation and a unit of temperature.

Although mathematics deals essentially with symbols, it is taught through the medium of language which is the major means of communication. Students build understanding as they process ideas through language. It is important for students to give emphasis to the familiarisation with the mathematical vocabulary and at the same time understand the difference of meanings of terms mathematically and everyday usage. Teachers have an important role to play here in highlighting such terms and using them in different contexts for comfortable acclimatization. As Marcus Quintilianus quoted, “One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.”

(The author is a senior mathematics examiner of the International Baccalaureate Organization and a member of the faculty of the Overseas School of Colombo.)

 

 

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Features

Success with debut single

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Fred-James Koch: Lots of airplay for ‘I’m Runnin’

 

Fred-James Koch seems to be more in the news, these days, than his illustrious father, Alston Koch.

The turning point in Fred-James career is, undoubtedly, the Hollywood film ‘Night Walk.’

His role in the film is two-fold – actor and singer.

It’s, in fact, his singing of the theme song, ‘I’m Runnin,’ that has generated quite a lot of excitement, among music lovers.

The song is now being heard, world-wide, over radio (in Sri Lanka, on Sun FM), while the video, too, has been seen by many, on social media.

An Australian magazine, ‘Music Injection,’ had this to say about Fred- James:

“Fred- James Koch has written an incredible theme song for the movie ‘Night Walk,’ called ‘I’m Runnin.’ Just released, this song is engaging and gives us a sense of urgency, as the song builds. Fred-James vocals have a unique tinge to them and with the video having scenes from ‘Night Walk,’ it encourages me to watch the movie. ‘I’m Runnin’ features AZ Sheriff.” – Jen.

Following the debut spin for ‘I’m Runnin,’ on The Music Director programme, on 88.3 Southern FM Melbourne, the track was also played on the All New Saturday Ausmosis programme.

And, guess what! It’s now No. 3 on the Australian Top 20 Download chart. and No. 2 on the Australian Top 20 Stream chart.

 

 

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Features

Inklings of change in national reconciliation policy

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By Jehan Perera

 

The government comfortably overcame a vote of no-confidence in one of its key ministers over the rise in the price of fuel.  Those who expected to have greater numbers supporting the no-confidence motion miscalculated that the apparent differences and rivalries within the government would be uppermost.  Any government, or institution for that matter, would have its internal differences.  The current government is better secured against these differences that might otherwise split it into different competing parts on account of the familial bonds that bind the leadership together.  The President, Prime Minister, newly appointed Finance Minister, as well as the former Speaker who is now Irrigation and Internal Security Minister, are closely knit brothers who have gone through trials and tribulations together. 

An iconic photograph of recent times would be the joy on (then) President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s face when he embraced his brother (then) Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa shortly after the latter survived a suicide bomb attack at the height of the war.  The brothers, however, have different strengths and constituencies.  They have different groups who follow and advise them, and each of these groups would prefer if their leader was the first among equals.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s comment that he has another eight years in which to achieve his goals has been widely discussed.  It would send a signal to others in the polity that it would be premature to gather around another member of the family at this time in anticipation that the baton would be passed on at the conclusion of the President’s current term in 2024.

On his part, the President has been promoting the institution he once served and to which most of his confidantes belonged or continue to belong.  The institution of the military is one where the closest of human bonds can be forged, because on the battlefield each depends on the other for their lives.  In his early period in office, the President has been promoting the military, both serving and retired, wherever he can, as ambassadors to foreign nations, as Covid health guideline monitors and as a supra grade of administrators in government departments.  It is often the case that those appointed to these positions are not the best suited to the tasks they have been set to do.  But the President evidently trusts them and they are his support base.  Unlike any other president in the past, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not a member of a political party.  Civil society organisations have periodically called for a non-party presidency who is non-partisan in decision making. 

 

CHALLENGE EXCESSSES

However, there is a need to challenge the excesses.  The president’s pardoning of a soldier who was held by several courts, including the Supreme Court, to have deliberately killed children and (adults, eight in all), outside of the battlefield may be due to his conviction that loyalty to the military counts most.  However, the President is expected to uphold the system of checks and balances, and if he favours one institution at the expense of the others, it leads to a weakening of the entire structure of governance.  Another looming challenge is that posed to the autonomy of institutions of higher education and specifically the universities.  The government decision to vest the Kotelawala Defence University with powers to accredit other institutions of higher education is a threat to the freedom of thought and expression.  The military hierarchy who will head the KDU can be expected to have values that are important to the military, but not to democracy which is based on human rights.

The KDU law needs to be opposed as indeed the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) has urged along with opposition political parties.  At the same time there are other issues on which civil society can consider giving constructive support to governmental initiatives.  For instance, they do not engage with NGOs who provide a variety of services complementing the work of the government. The most important of these is the national reconciliation process.  There are indications that the government is shifting its stance on the issues of post-war reconciliation.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election victory on a highly nationalist platform won him a big majority of votes of the Sinhalese ethnic majority.  The government felt empowered to publicly declare its intention to withdraw from the post-war reconciliation process initiated by its predecessor government with support from the international community.  This was followed by withdrawal from UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015 co-sponsored by the previous government. 

However, the four subsequent internationally driven resolutions against Sri Lanka, emanating from Geneva (UNHRC), Ottawa (Ontario Parliament), Washington DC (US Congress) and Brussels (EU Parliament) seem to have led to a serious rethink within the government about its policy towards post-war reconciliation.  All four make human rights and the ethnic conflict their centerpiece.  Though not yet publicly commented upon, the signs of change are two-fold.  The first is the increased visibility of the US Embassy in meeting with the leaders of the Tamil and Muslim parties.  The media has reported that US Embassy officials discussed issues of post-war reconciliation efforts, devolution of power, rule of law and the Prevention of Terrorism Act with SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem. Recently, a US Embassy delegation, led by Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz, held similar discussions with TNA leader R. Sampanthan where the focus was on the proposed new Constitution.

 

CHANGING WINDS

The second sign of a change is the statement from the Presidential Secretariat announcing a recommendation, emanating from the President Commission of Inquiry for Appraisal of the Findings of Previous Commissions and Committees on Human Rights and the Way Forward headed by Justice AHMD Nawaz.  This is with regard to the EU call for the abolishing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act long seen by those promoting national security as part of the country’s first line of defence.  The Commission said that it cannot agree with calls for repealing the PTA but Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism law should be reformed in line with similar laws in other countries, including the UK.  This would be aimed at affirming Sri Lankan sovereignty and national security interests, which are important to the government’s voter base, while complying with the requirements of the EU parliament which has called for the repeal of the PTA on the grounds that it violated human rights. 

The Presidential Secretariat statement also contains a significant section in which it mentioned that “It is the policy of the Government to work with the United Nations and its agencies to ensure accountability and human resource development in order to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation. The Government is committed to providing solutions for the issues to be resolved within the democratic and legal process and to ensure justice and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms.”  This is the first official indication that the Government is reconsidering its earlier position that it would blaze is own path with an indigenously generated reconciliation model which would not require international assistance. In this context it would be useful if the government focused closer attention to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Goals.

Veteran Tamil political leader V Anandasangaree, who has championed Tamil rights for a long time, and whose son is a Canadian parliamentarian, has referred to these recent developments and said that the President who holds the defence portfolio, Prime Minister and Finance Minister being members of Rajapaksa family could ensure genuine post-war reconciliation.  He also urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government not to leave the problem for a future administration to resolve, but address it now.  If the President is to successfully address the problem that has eluded a solution since independence, and been the biggest disaster to Sri Lanka’s development, he will need to broad base his support at multiple levels.  He will not only need the support of the ruling party, led by his brothers, as well as civil society, but also that of the ethnic minority parties and the opposition political parties.  This will require patience, dialogue and self-sacrifice, and the need to break from past and chart a reconciliatory course of action.

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