Objects and (autobiographical) memory

Long-term memory can be broken down into functional systems.

Declarative memory

  • Episodic memory (facts, figures)
  • Semantic memory (personal life events) including Autobiographical memory (life events that are key to the narrative we create that is foundational to our sense of self).
  • (Spatial memory? – it can be declared but is by no means constituted in language.)

Non-declarative memory

  • Motor-process memory
  • Perceptual memory
  • Priming
  • Conditioned responses (including both Emotional responses and Physical responses)
  • Non-associative, reflex responses

The nice thing about this is that the different systems can be correlated with regions of the brain (Markowitsch, 2010). Furthermore we can follow Manier & Hirst (2010) and say that if cultural memory (Assman, 2010) is to work then it needs to map onto the forms of individual memory. So, ritual is a form of motor-process memory, cultural narratives become a form of semantic or episodic memory (depending on the degree to which the individual identifies with the wider culture??). This also ties into the idea suggested by Assman (2010) that there are ‘communicative genres’, frameworks for transmitting cultural memory that are culture specific and are themselves subject to processes of change and loss. (It is interesting to think about how the large-scale internal migrations to urban centres in a country like China are going to impact on familial structures and the maintenance of communicative genres.)

The problem with this model is that it is unhelpful when thinking about the process of reminiscence. What we’re exploring is why an object should provoke a memory. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to think that holding an object evokes a perceptual memory or a motor-process memory but object-stimulated reminiscence provokes autobiographical memory and the systems model splits those up.

To what extent is autobiographical memory language-based?

The origins of autobiographical memory seem to lie in linguistic practices early in an individuals life. Different authors (Nelson, 2003; Reese & Farrant, 2003; Hadden, 2003) all argue that the interaction between carers and infants is crucial in shaping the content of the infant’s autobiographical memory. They show how the richness of the language used by carers when recalling recent events in the child’s life influences the richness of the children’s own accounts of their past and their use of language more generally. Furthermore the recounting of events helps to develop the idea (in the mind of the child) that there is a person, an ‘I’, at the centre of these events about whom stories can be told.

(There’s an interesting parallel lurking in these texts. Nelson (2003) suggests that the emergence of a sense of self occurs some time in the second year of life and correlates with a personal experience of agency, of being able to act upon and change the world to achieve personal goals. Tallis (2011) makes the argument that, in evolutionary terms, the emergence of self-consciousness can be correlated with the development of opposable thumbs which significantly improved early humans’ ability to act upon the world and would have led to an experience of personal agency.)

However, there’s an interesting study on memory recall in bilingual adults (Schrauf & Rubin, 2003) which suggests that the language environment has a significant impact on the memories that are recalled. For example, in a Dutch-English speaker, a Dutch language environment is much more likely to provoke ‘Dutch’ memories. Nonetheless, these authors propose “that encoding and retrieval , the two key structural moments in autobiographical memory, are linguistically marked, if not constitutively linguistic, and that this accounts for language-specific retrieval. What is encoded is an experience, and that takes place in some linguaculturally defined space. Epistemologically speaking, there is no objective, nonsemiotic, noncultural world […] for us.” (p138)

I went to a lecture this afternoon on “An unusual case of Amnesia” by Loveday. The speaker has been working extensively with a woman who has suffered from quite profound loss of autobiographical memory and inability to recognise faces after a viral infection seriously damaged her right medial temporal lobe and (to a lesser extent) other regions. In explaining the case study, Loveday built on the theory of her colleague, Martin Conway, around autobiographical memory. This stated that autobiographical memory (ABM) can either be general or of specific episodes (episodic ABM).

Episodic ABM:
– involves SPAC (sensory, perceptual, affect, cognitive) details;
– is often visual
– involves short time-slices of experience which are then narratively (re-)constructed;
– are always (re-)constructed from a particular perspective;
– are recollectively experienced;
– are represented in a temporal dimension
– are subject to rapid forgetting unless they are linked into a ABM framework.

This model further argues that complex episodic AB memories are constructed out of simple episodic AB memories, which were themselves constructed out of episodic elements. This, I think, also tallies with the observations of Viard, whose fMRI results indicated that thinking about past episodes involved a significant element of visual imagination.

This model therefore posits that at the root of complex autobiographical memories are simple episodic elements that are built out of SPAC details. (This is in harmony with the implications of embodied cognition.) In the light of this model, we could say that the experience of holding an object can evoke a memory if it overlaps in its SPAC qualities with an episodic element at the root of a complex, autobiographical memory.

In a loose way we could appeal to the idea that the brain is massively interconnected in order to make the interconnectedness of memory seem more feasible.

Another idea, which helps to break down the barriers implicit in the systems model, comes from Schmidt (2010). (The most frustrating thing about the paper by Schmidt is that it is rich in insights but all his further references are written in German!) I need to spend more time with his paper to get all the details in my head but he provides a theoretical grounding for the anecdotal observation that memories exist in multi-modal networks rather than in isolation. The idea of networks links in with notions of (social) constructivism but extends the modality of the network beyond the bounds of logical-linguistic thought that is usually implied in accounts of constructivism.

Of course, if this works then it should be possible to capture it in conversation. Loveday mentioned “the Levine method of looking at ABM” – this might provide the tool I need then to analyse people’s linguistic response to the experience of holding an object.

References
Assman, J. (2010) ‘Communicative and Cultural Memory’ in Erll, A. & Nünning, A (eds.) (2010) A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies, Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 109-118

Haden, C.A. (2003) ‘Joint Encoding and Joint Reminiscing: Implications for Young Children’s Understanding and Remembering of Personal Experiences’ in Fivush, R. & Haden, C.A. (2003) Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: Developmental and Cultural Perspectives, Mahwah (NJ); London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 49 – 69

Loveday, C. (2012) An Unusual Case of Amnesia, Lecture, Northumbria University, February 1st, 2012

Manier, D. & Hirst, W. (2010) ‘A Cognitive Taxonomy of Collective Memories’ in Erll, A. & Nünning, A (eds.) (2010) A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies, Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 254 – 261

Markowitsch, H.J. (2010) ‘Cultural Memory and the Neurosciences’ in Erll, A. & Nünning, A (eds.) (2010) A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies, Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 275 – 283

Nelson, K. (2003) ‘Narrative and Self, Myth and Memory: Emergence of the Cultural Self’ in Fivush, R. & Haden, C.A. (2003) Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: Developmental and Cultural Perspectives, Mahwah (NJ); London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 3-28

Reese, E. & Farrant, K. (2003) ‘Social Origins of Reminiscing’ in Fivush, R. & Haden, C.A. (2003) Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: Developmental and Cultural Perspectives, Mahwah (NJ); London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 29 – 48

Schmidt, S.J. (2010) ‘Memory and Remembrance: A Constructivist Approach’ in Erll, A. & Nünning, A (eds.) (2010) A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies, Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 191 – 201

Schrauf, R.W. & Rubin, D.C. (2003) ‘On the Bilingual’s Two Sets of Memories’ in Fivush, R. & Haden, C.A. (2003) Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: Developmental and Cultural Perspectives, Mahwah (NJ); London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 121 – 145

Tallis, R. (2011) Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, Durham: Acumen Publishing

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About Bruce Davenport

Museum educator and researcher.
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