The Role of Neural Event Boundaries in the Disruption of Related Sequential Actions

Have you ever left one room to enter another, only to wonder what it is you wanted to do there and then only find yourself able to recall your intended action as you return to the first room?

Here lies the distinction between cognition, memory formation, retention and recall, in organic life forms, in contrast with the storage and retrieval of data in the processing of digital code.

If I click on an object on a computer desktop, then right click and select ‘copy’ from the drop down menu, I save the highlighted object to short term, clipboard memory. If I then grab the original object, drag it into the recycle bin, which I then empty, the original object is gone and all I’m left with is its perfect digital clone copy in clipboard. If I then right click once again and select ‘refresh’ on the desktop, the object saved in clipboard is lost.

Sentient creatures rely on short term and long term memory but also have access to distant memories that seem to have been forgotten until triggered by a familiar word, a voice, a sight, a sound or a smell.

This would suggest the existence of an infinite elasticity of memory in living creatures, whereas a digital device is hard-limited in storage capacity that, once exceeded, is incapable to further storage or retrieval of new data.

The reason we sometimes forget what we intend to do is not because our memory has been wiped or because we’ve reached the limits of our capacity to store more memories. The brain is highly effective at multi-tasking when it comes to subconscious, instinctive or autonomous functions but less so in fully conscious mode.

When I’m in room A, a room I know well or have been in long enough to map, a layout of room A becomes overlaid on my thought processes, enabling me to navigate that room, knowing where the objects in it are, whether those in plain view or out of view in drawers or cabinets.

If I decide, while in room A, that a sheet of paper I wish to insert, unfolded, into an envelope, is too big for that envelope, it occurs to me that, in room B, I have a paper guillotine that will solve my problem by neatly trimming the paper to fit the envelope.

However, as I cross what is called and ‘event boundary’, often a doorway, my mind automatically removes the overlay for room A from my immediate thoughts, because I won’t need the room A overlay to navigate either the corridor or the next room I intend to enter. The overlay for room A remaining front of mind. Would interfere with my ability to navigate the corridor, identify the next room and would, similarly interfere with successful navigation of the next room, where I need to locate and retrieve the guillotine.

To prevent these mapping conflicts, the mind switches between overlays, in accordance with immediate need. The switch happens at the event boundaries between room A, the corridor and room B, which, in this case, are the doorways to each room. As I leave room A, the overlay for room A gives way to that for the corridor and, as I enter room B, the overlay for the corridor gives way for that of room B.

This is why, often, as I arrive in room B, I forget why I left room A and therefore lose sight of the reason why I’m in room B. However, as soon as I return to room A, the most recent iteration of room A’s overlay reasserts itself and I immediately remember the paper, the envelope and my need for the guillotine.

This time, as I leave room A, I create a mobile overlay consisting only of a mental image of the guillotine which persists, surviving the transition across two event boundaries, enabling me to locate and retrieve the guillotine from room B and return to room A to complete my task, unhindered.

Event boundaries are often doorways but need not be. The same switching between mental overlays is responsible for absentmindedly dropping one’s keys in a waste bin with one hand, instead of the crumpled tissue in the other, if distracted by a ringing phone, for example. In this case, the phone’s ringing tone acts as the event boundary, interrupting my thought processes as I arrive home, use my key to open the door, while retrieving the crumpled tissue from my pocket, with the intention of binning it in a hallway waste bin.

The same mental dislocation can happen when someone unexpectedly calls out my name [the event boundary] as I unwrap a sweet. As a result of confused mental overlays, I pop the wrapper in my mouth and put the sweet in my pocket, to the amusement of the person who distracted me.

Those who either genuinely misconstrue the superficial similarities in these distinct processes or wilfully seek to mislead, in order to draw a false equivalence between human and digital memory, conflate one process for the other because they either lack insight into or wish to obfuscate what is happening in either scenario.

Computers, since they are computational devices working according to precise mathematical parameters in the complex engineering of their hardware and the binary coding of their software, don’t make these kinds of human errors.

However, whereas a computer on has a relatively small number of components, finite storage capacity, and a strictly limited scope to its functionality, defined by hard parameters in hardware and software, a healthy human being above the age of infancy has an infinitely elastic memory, an unlimited capacity for imagination, ideation, inquiry and an ambit of cognitive functionality unconstrained by hard limits.

A typical computer system comprises a case, motherboard, processor, memory, storage drive[s], optical drive[s], [a] graphics card[s], [an] audio card[s] and a power source. It requires cooling and ventilation of the silicon chips on the processor and the memory, the controller boards of the storage and optical drives, graphics and audio cards, as well as the integrated circuitry of the motherboard. It cannot function without external power and generally has a limited lifespan measured in single digit years, due to the detrimental impact of accumulated dust in the case on the efficiency of the mechanics and the effective regulation of temperature, particularly of the processor, power supply and the cooling fans.

A human body is a marvel of organic, RNA/DNA-based, electro-regulated, regenerative, self-protecting, self-repairing, self-developing, growing, molecular, cellular, biochemical and biomechanical engineering. It comprises: bones; muscles; water; lipids; ligaments; tendons; cartilage; miles of blood vessels, skin; pores; autoimmune system; lymphatic system; endocrine system; procreative system; balancing system; central and peripheral nervous systems; sensory systems; genitalia; genes; chromosomes; cells; pores; glands; nerves; lymph nodes; body hair; hair; head; skull; spine; shoulder blades; shoulders, collarbone, sternum, ribcage; neck; throat; larynx; head; forehead; brow; eye brows; stereoscopic eyes; irises; pupils; aqueous humour; vitreous humour; eyelids; eyelashes; tear ducts; stereophonic ears; ear drums; earlobes; face; teeth; jaws; chin; cheeks; mouth; lips; nose; nostrils; nasal hairs; upper arms; forearms; elbows; wrists; hands; palms; fingers; fingernails; knuckles; buttocks; thighs; quadriceps; knees; shins; calves; ankles; feet; heels; toes; toe knuckles; soles; toenails; airway; gullet; alimentary canal; digestive system; torso; womb; heart; lungs; diaphragm; stomach; intestine; bladder; bowel; liver; kidneys; urethra; spleen; gall bladder; pancreas; bone marrow; blood; amniotic fluid; lymphatic fluid; synovial fluid; bile; mucus; sputum; hormones; enzymes; proteins; neurons; axons; synapses; neural network; brain; mind; consciousness; sentience; autonomous functions; motor functions; unlimited learning capacity; imagination; vocalisation; language … and innate, creative intelligence.

Despite this phenomenal complexity, a healthy human lifespan can extend well beyond a century, during which synapses continue to fire; the heart beats; the lungs breathe; blood circulates; organs function and replenish themselves and bones, bone marrow, skin, hairs and nails regenerate, repair and grow. The only inputs required to power this miracle of biochemistry for over 36,500 consecutive days, are a modest amount of sunlight; warmth; nutrition; hydration; ventilation; oxygenation; hygiene; exercise; rest and sleep.

No spare parts, servicing, maintenance, hardware upgrades, software updates, code rewrites, security patches, firmware updates, power cables or external power source are required.

Any attempt to take an inert, immobile, insensate; unthinking, unimagining, unprocreative digital neural network, hard limited by parameters of depreciating, obsolescent, short-spanned hardware and software which consumes vast amounts of energy in a colossal data centre of row after row after row of cloud servers and a commensurately vast refrigeration system for cooling and seek to equate that with a small loaf of bread-sized organic brain that can control the stupendous complexity of an entire human body, effortlessly, for over a century, would be an unserious endeavour.

M S Tafawa Balewa MSc, PhD

Consultant Research Fellow


Published Online: February 24th 2024]



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