“Where” is a primary mechanism for sorting episodic memory. From the beginning of life the rooms of the house are connected to routines of life, particular patterns connected to the physical body and mapped in the brain in relation to it. Beyond the house is a world of locations and everything happened someplace. If you want to remember how many windows were in your childhood home you go back in your mind to walk through the rooms or around the house to count them. In the earliest stages of life a baby feels the distinctions between the safety of the familiar home spaces and what’s unfamiliar with its hazards of unpredictability.
Every experience is staged on a location, a classroom, playing field, the different houses of our friends, so in memory we think of them as somewhere. When I think of a fight with a childhood friend, I see the clearing in the woods where we fought to stand on the crate, the flurry of little girl slaps and pushes just one more descriptive feature in the scene, an oldest child and an only child, each used to being the child on top, unwilling to relinquish position. What I’ve just written changed the memory by adding this angle to it. As we activate the circuits laid down at the time we return not just to the scene but to a memory that’s been adjusted by every remembering. Because the brain grows and develops where it’s used, each remembering reinforces particular features. The interpretive emotional imagery of dreams clarifies the subjective meaning and strengthens that part of the circuitry. This reworking of memory creates the image that best represents the personal meaning in our experience. Ideas of objective right or wrong are irrelevant to the person’s trust in what’s been learned. When I saw her yesterday and asked her what she remembered about the fight, the first thing she said was, “You mean the one in the clearing.” immediately locating through place the right memory. She said it was because I called her fat, then she called me skinny and we started hitting each other. She didn’t remember the crate and she remembers our shared childhood much better than me. Either way right or wrong is not important, the emotional preoccupations were.
In the concrete and metaphoric moving from place to place through life, where we’ve been is behind us, where we’re going is in front and so we have the visual images of past and future. We move through space in time throughout life, the meaning embedded in the way events unfold. In Mark Johnson’s descriptions of “enactivism”, he suggests that meaning is much deeper than concept, being rooted in the actual experience. He notes that “the arts are exemplary cases of consummated meaning”. Everything is directed at the meaning expressed so that maximum content can be derived from the essential form given. Art trains our ability to understand meaning by strengthening the circuits in the brain that respond to the essence of human experience.