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Yoga Sutras: Insights on Memory

Dur­ing the past cen­tu­ry, research in psy­chol­o­gy and neu­ro­science has lead to an under­stand­ing of sev­er­al cog­ni­tive and neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal process­es under­lie the three stages of mem­o­ry pro­cess­ing: encod­ing, con­sol­i­da­tion and retrieval. Encod­ing refers to the process­es that trans­form the infor­ma­tion we per­ceive through the sens­es into a men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. These process­es occur at the time of our expe­ri­ence, and some aspects of the expe­ri­ence get record­ed as a mem­o­ry rep­re­sen­ta­tion [1].

Arti­cle high­lights: Par­al­lels between the Yog­ic cog­ni­tion and Neu­ro­scienceYoga Sutras/Yoga Phi­los­o­phyCog­ni­tive neuroscience/Behavioral neu­ro­scienceBuddhi’s func­tion — anu­vyavasaya — described as an impor­tant part of mem­o­ry for­ma­tionFrontal lobes — involved in atten­tion and elab­o­ra­tion — impor­tant fac­tors that affect mem­o­ry encod­ingFor­ma­tion of mem­o­ry from sam­skara

Bind­ing togeth­er of fea­tures of both the process of cog­ni­tion and the object cog­nizedHip­pocam­pus — con­ver­gence zone that binds togeth­er var­i­ous fea­tures of a life expe­ri­ence, includ­ing one’s own thoughts dur­ing the expe­ri­enceMem­o­ries con­sist of plea­sure and pain, asso­ci­at­ed with raa­ga and dwe­sha, respec­tive­lyAmyg­dala sto­ries both appet­i­tive and aver­sive con­di­tioned mem­o­ries

Allows indi­vid­u­als to both secure plea­sure and avoid pain.

Mem­o­ry Encod­ing, Atten­tion and Elab­o­ra­tion

In Veda Vyasa’s com­men­tary on the Yoga Sutras of Patan­jali, very inter­est­ing insights on the nature and for­ma­tion of mem­o­ries are offered [2]. It is explained that an expe­ri­ence or cog­ni­tion is “asso­ci­at­ed with and coloured by” both the object that is per­ceived as well as process and instru­ment of cog­ni­tion. Such a cog­ni­tion pro­duces a men­tal imprint, a sam­skara, which then gives rise to mem­o­ry.

The chain of cau­sa­tion is clear­ly explained as fol­lows:

Cog­ni­tion -> men­tal imprint (sam­skara) -> mem­o­ry

Sim­i­lar to the cog­ni­tion and sam­skara that pro­duced it, the mem­o­ry con­tains fea­tures of both the nature of the object per­ceived as well as the process of cog­ni­tion. For exam­ple, in the expe­ri­ence of an orange, both fea­tures are includ­ed:

  1. Features of the process of cog­ni­tion, which is a role of the bud­dhi, the fac­ul­ty of intel­li­gence

(2) Fea­tures of the object that is cog­nized, which is the orange as it actu­al­ly is, with its colour, form, tex­ture, smell etc.

In the Yoga Sutras, mem­o­ry is defined as a vrit­ti (thought wave; often trans­lat­ed as a “whirlpool” or fluc­tu­a­tion of the mind) that ris­es in the chit­ta, the mind-field, through the sam­skara of a past expe­ri­ence.

anub­hootavishayasan­pramoshah smri­tih (1.11)

Trans­la­tion: Mem­o­ry is when the thought waves of per­ceived sub­jects do not slip away (and through impres­sions come back to con­scious­ness).

The bud­dhi, intel­li­gence, has sev­er­al func­tions, and one of its func­tions, described as anu­vyavasaya, is impor­tant for the process of mem­o­ry. Anu­vyavasaya is described as the aware­ness that bud­dhi has that it cog­nizes or expe­ri­ences. Abhi­nav­agup­ta, the great Kash­miri poly­math and philoso­pher, described anu­vyavasaya as the deter­mi­nate per­cep­tion that occurs after (“anu”) the ini­tial per­cep­tion of the object by the sens­es (“vyavasaya”). In Yoga phi­los­o­phy, anu­vyavasaya refers to the func­tion of the mind by which sense per­cep­tions are asso­ci­at­ed, dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed, inte­grat­ed and assim­i­lat­ed into mean­ing­ful con­cepts. Hence, anu­vyavasaya is also con­sid­ered a cre­ative func­tion of the bud­dhi [3].

The human brain: Frontal lobes, Hip­pocam­pus and Amyg­dala

(Image source: Illus­tra­tion by Lev­ent Efe)

Inter­est­ing­ly, mod­ern research stud­ies have con­sis­tent­ly shown that mem­o­ry encod­ing is main­ly influ­enced by how much we pay atten­tion to infor­ma­tion and the extent to which we “elab­o­rate” on its mean­ing. Here, elab­o­ra­tion involves con­nect­ing the new infor­ma­tion with oth­er infor­ma­tion or past knowl­edge, pon­der­ing over it, mak­ing it per­son­al­ly mean­ing­ful and so on. It has been demon­strat­ed that deep­er elab­o­ra­tion, espe­cial­ly mak­ing it per­son­al­ly rel­e­vant and mak­ing mul­ti­ple con­nec­tions, helps in cre­at­ing stronger mem­o­ries. For instance, if some­one from South India is asked to remem­ber a “Kabocha”, which is a green ridged pump­kin native to Japan, they might remem­ber it by con­nect­ing its appear­ance to a green pump­kin grown local­ly and to mem­o­ries of savour­ing the deli­cious sam­bar pre­pared using the pump­kin. This would cre­ate a stronger mem­o­ry than it would if one remem­bers it as “a 7 let­ter word begin­ning with K”. Anoth­er exam­ple of how atten­tion affects mem­o­ry encod­ing is how we for­get things in our every­day life. For instance ”Where did I place my mobile phone?” This occurs as a con­se­quence of not pay­ing atten­tion while the par­tic­u­lar action is hap­pen­ing, or because of divid­ing our atten­tion to mul­ti­ple tasks.

From a neu­ro­sci­en­tif­ic per­spec­tive, data from neu­roimag­ing and clin­i­cal stud­ies cor­rob­o­rate these find­ings and indi­cate that the frontal lobes of the brain (shown in green in the fig­ure) are involved in atten­tion and elab­o­ra­tive pro­cess­ing and hence affect mem­o­ry encod­ing.

Hip­pocam­pus: Bind­ing of Fea­tures

Episod­ic mem­o­ries are mem­o­ries of per­son­al life expe­ri­ences, and encod­ing them involves atten­tion and elab­o­ra­tion, process­es that take place in the frontal lobes of the brain. Just the way a mem­o­ry of an orange requires the bind­ing togeth­er of dif­fer­ent fea­tures such as the organge colour, round shape, cit­rus smell and sweet-sour taste, the mem­o­ry of a life expe­ri­ence requires the bind­ing togeth­er of all its fea­tures such as where and when the event hap­pened, the peo­ple and objects present dur­ing that event and one’s own thoughts while that event was occur­ing. Research has estab­lished that the hall­mark of episod­ic encod­ing is the bind­ing togeth­er of var­i­ous fea­tures of an expe­ri­ence into an inte­grat­ed mem­o­ry rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Neu­roimag­ing stud­ies have shown that the hip­pocam­pus, which is a struc­ture locat­ed deep in the medi­al por­tion of the tem­po­ral lobe (shown in fig­ure), acts like a “con­ver­gence zone”, since it receives high­ly processed infor­ma­tion from many areas of the brain. The var­i­ous fea­tures of an expe­ri­ence like faces of peo­ple in the scene, the loca­tion, and the con­text con­verge on the hip­pocam­pus and it binds these fea­tures into an inte­grat­ed mem­o­ry rep­re­sen­ta­tion. As the lobes involved in atten­tion and elab­o­ra­tion, the frontal lobes have the abil­i­ty to mod­u­late mem­o­ry encod­ing by giv­ing more atten­tion to the pro­cess­ing of par­tic­u­lar fea­tures of an expe­ri­ence, enhanc­ing their input to the hip­pocam­pal con­ver­gence zone, thus increas­ing the chances of those fea­tures get­ting bound into the mem­o­ry rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Amyg­dala: Plea­sure and Pain

Vyasa fur­ther explains that all the mem­o­ries con­sist of plea­sure, pain and obliv­i­ous­ness. He describes plea­sure as being close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with raa­ga, attrac­tion or desir­able expe­ri­ences, pain as being asso­ci­at­ed with dwe­sha, aver­sion or unde­sir­able expe­ri­ences and obliv­i­ous­ness as being con­nect­ed to avidya, igno­rance. Recent research in behav­ioral neu­ro­science has shown that amyg­dala, which con­sists of two lima-bean shaped clus­ters near the hip­pocam­pus, medi­ates both appet­i­tive behav­ior (sat­is­fy­ing var­i­ous desires, e.g. food) and aver­sive (fear­ful) behav­ior through dif­fer­ent men­tal process­es [4]. There is con­vinc­ing evi­dence that the amyg­dala stores mem­o­ries that allow ini­tial­ly neu­tral stim­uli to become asso­ci­at­ed with appet­i­tive and aver­sive out­comes through con­di­tion­ing. These asso­ci­a­tions are cod­ed at the neu­ronal lev­el. It is due to these asso­ci­a­tions that indi­vid­u­als can both secure plea­sure and avoid pain.

More inter­est­ing insights will be dis­cussed in upcom­ing arti­cles…


  1. [1] Smith, E. E., & Koss­lyn, S. M. (2013). Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­o­gy: Pear­son New Inter­na­tion­al Edi­tion PDF eBook: Mind and Brain. Pear­son High­er Ed.

  2. [2] Bhāratī, S. V. (2004). Yoga Sūtras of Patañ­jali with the expo­si­tion of Vyāsa: a trans­la­tion and com­men­tary. Moti­lal Banar­si­dass Pub­lish­ers.

  3. [3] Beit­men, L. R. (2014). Neu­ro­science and Hin­du Aes­thet­ics: A Crit­i­cal Analy­sis of VS Ramachandran’s “Sci­ence of Art”.

  4. [4] Fer­nan­do, A. B., Mur­ray, J. E., & Mil­ton, A. L. (2013). The amyg­dala: secur­ing plea­sure and avoid­ing pain. Fron­tiers in behav­ioral neu­ro­science, 7, 190.

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