Like all biological traits, human memory reflects a long evolutionary history, most of it shared with other animals. Yet, with rare exceptions, evolution has either been overlooked in discussions of memory or treated in an outdated way. As a result, a simple idea about the cerebral cortex has reigned for more than a century: that its various areas specialize in functions characterized as memory, perception, the control of movement, or executive control (mainly decision-making). By taking a contemporary view of brain evolution into account, however, it’s clear that the brain simply doesn’t work this way. Instead, evolution has led to different parts of the cortex specializing in distinct kinds of neural representations, many of which evolved during major evolutionary transitions. Representations, in this sense, correspond to the information processed and stored by a network of neurons, and they underpin our memories as well as our ability to perceive the world and control our actions.
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