Paul Grobstein (Biology, Center for Science in Society) and
Elliott Shore (History, Information Services)
History, Memory and the Brain
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum
Elliott began by reporting, from his twelve years with the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, on the "palpable divide" between scientists and social scientists, a divide sharply juxtaposed this past summer in two provocative review essays in the Times Literary Supplement,** and highlighted again in Don Barber's recent talk in this series about climatology. For the scientists described in Don's talk, the past was "incapable" of predicting the future. But historians believe in causation: they record history in order to show what causes what. In doing so, they are frequently charged with two "vices": presenting the past in the guise of the present ("presentism") and presenting it as a guise of writing about themselves. (Elliott offered his own BMC dissertation as an example: in choosing to write about a socialist publisher who flourished in the U.S. from 1880 to 1920, he selected a protagonist whom he liked, and who was like him.) A third "vice" which historians share with all humans is that of nostalgia (Elliott's example here was his own critique of Paul's nostalgia for a time when academics was not implicated in the political and cash economy). Humans want to "continue the conditions"; to "fix things they way they were" (think Independence Hall in Philadelphia; think Dalton Hall on this campus): we want to preserve what was in what is.
Is there something in what science knows about history and memory that can both help us understand (and absolve ourselves?) from such "vices," and better inform the issues and possible future directions of history? Can science be useful in other disciplines? Specifically, can the current "brain story" about memory and time be useful in understanding how and why history is done the way it is done (and contribute to altering the way it might be done)? Elliott and Paul offered a "duet of speculations" on
What the Mind/Brain/Nervous System Has to Do With History and Memory.
Paul said that the widespread presumption that each of us has a "tape storage system," a set of "card files" located at particular places in our brains, which constitute our memories, is "not true." Experiences cause diffuse changes in lots of parts of our brains, but those "traces" are not localized as complete memories. They do affect our behavior, but there is no direct way to read what has affected us. A smell, for instance, cannot "trigger a memory." A memory is not a "file pulled," but a reconstruction that takes place when the brain feels called upon to create a story that accounts for a set of traces. An input (such as a smell) causes the nervous system to notice a diffuse series of traces, and to generate a story to make sense of them. Forty years of (somewhat gruesome) experiments have shown that memory is not located in a single part of the brain, and not removable from it. It is constituted, rather, by a series of different things accountable for in different ways. In a very profound sense, the human nervous system functions only in the present. It receives input, and generates a story based on that, including our entire concept of the past, which is a construction of the brain in the present. The past is constantly being reconstructed in the present moment. There is a reason why the brain goes to the trouble to recreate a past with memories; it is to preserve for the present (or the future? there was some disagreement here...)
But is this account simply replacing nostalgia with presentism? We are necessarily nostalgic. We think about the ways we have done things before: if it worked before, there is no reason to change. But which traces do we attend to? Why do different things trigger different memories (or the same memories)?
Is this like language learning? ("When I meet this verb in that context, it has to act that way"?) Are there certain paths which, used before, are taken again? (If they are taken too frequently, do they cease to be used? Smell can become meaningless with time--in squalor, for example). How are neural associations formed? Is this a result of their being used "too much" or "too little"?
A trace is an amount of material released by a neuron. (Are neurotransmitters the historian's "real" documents?) A useful way to conceptualize this would be to look at a tree on the campus, and note its characteristics: a nodule, or a place where the bark is thin. We make up a story ("a large bear roughed it up"? "a woodsman hacked it off"?) to account for the details we notice; similarly, our memories are the stories made up to account for neural events. We have "no real memories," but only traces of "what has gotten us this far." Is there a question of hierarchy here? If memory is just a manifestation of traces, then knowledge is the particular kind of story we construct. But what kind of story is that?
Hegel argues that all knowledge is memory, that we come into the world with a blueprint, and knowledge is simply the process of accessing, in stages, the knowledge we already have. This is an idealist philosophy, which sees knowledge as just a recovery of what was there; there is nothing new to be acquired. How does this compare to what Freud describes in "Reconstructions in Analysis"? There memory is a total reconstruction (psychoanalysis "never loses things"; everything remains in the unconscious). An important distinction is made here between pathology and normalcy. Trauma is a misremembering, and psychoanalysis is a form of archeology: putting together incomplete pieces to make a useful story. The historical veracity of the story is not necessary to its usefulness. Comparison was also made to Jung's collective unconscious, to that "inborn reservoir" we can "never get to the fullness of." We have all knowledge, but repress certain narratives, which are not available to us. Are we preconditioned by culture to "go through certain tracks," guided by a "time warp" to release certain cultural paradigms? What is encoded?
Why does the memory identify only some traces and not others? We give knowledge a time dimension. Can we acquire knowledge that is time independent?
It was a "dead end" of brain science to talk about the brain working as a computer; brains are "not total recall machines." Present experience "borrows from memory" to make sense of what is happening now--but why does memory only identify some traces, not others? What makes us remember some things? What drives the process of selection? Why is there some overlap in our memories? When is there enough to even say "it happened"? It's well worth "turning the question over," asking not only why people remember, but why people forget. We need to "keep in mind" (sic) that the stories our brains make of traces "depend on lots of stuff," including both genetics and experience; presumably the similarities in the stories we tell are due to the shared apparatus we use for self preservation.
Every historical document is "written after"; it has "memory built into it." But the project of history is not to recover memory. The bottom line here is not to be suspicious of either memory or of history, but rather to
keep in mind the positive result of this process: it makes it possible for us to do do new things. Because memory is not "faithful," it can be a source of making something new.
Why does nostalgia make us angry? Perhaps because it functions--even when the memory is a bad one--as a marker of pleasure. Or perhaps because it deadens agency: "not all people are as alive as we could be." We could be more free, less bound, when we recollect, when we make language choices. The historian Michael Oakeshott has written about the process of assembling evidence, and thereby "making events," as a means of both "becoming intelligible" and "touching one another"; he likens the process to that of building a dry wall--an image which implies that the process has some limits. (But what are the limits? Where do they come from??)
The enterprise here is not one that points to the necessity of "using the brain to do history"; what the brain does and what history does "are already the same thing." What both do is construct "metaphoric relations." We only have traces, and we always have multiple ways to construct them--so the existence of an outsider is always inherent in the construction of a metaphor.
What about the role of the people who live in the margins, who have "another cultural expression"? What light does their experience shine on the practice of history and the role of memory in constructing it? We need to find a way to understand what "the cultural piece" is: is it what's left over when you remove all unique individual experience, or is it what is in common among all experiences? Paying attention to marginal stories could highlight the process of knowledge acquisition.
There is a distinction to be made between an individual making her way through the world, and the practice of history as the record of a cultural collection of knowledge. How do we learn to live well with the traces that are left to us of the past? And how do we "scale up" from that practice to the writing of cultural stories? An argument was made that "at no level above the individual brain do you actually have a collective"; a counter claim was that we need to be in conversation with others, in order to discover the collective, by removing what is individual and "distilling" what is common among us.
The final session of this semester's series on "Science's Audiences" will be held @ 1:15 next Friday, November 19, when Alice Lesnick and Jody Cohen of the Education Program will speak about "Exploring Pathways to Access: Students Teaching Students." In the interim, the conversation is invited to continue online.
John McCrone, "Reasons to forget," Times Literary Supplement, 30 January, 2004. Review of:
HOW THE MIND FORGETS AND REMEMBERS. The seven sins of memory. Daniel Schacter. Souvenir.
MEMORY AND EMOTION. The making of lasting memories. James McGaugh. Weidenfeld and Nicolson/Columbia University Press.
MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS. The biological building blocks of memory. Rusiko Bourtchouladze/Columbia University Press.
Kenneth Minogue, "No blood or dagger," Times Literary Supplement, 12 December, 2003. Review of: OAKESHOTT ON HISTORY. Luke O'Sullivan. Exeter: Imprint Academic.