The making (and breaking) of memory

29 minutes

EPISODE SYNOPSIS:

Can you trust your memories? Ever wondered if your earliest recollections really happened the way you remember them? Professor Amanda Barnier helps us explore the strengths and challenges of memory: how it works and how others can help us to remember better. Then, Professor Kate Darien-Smith helps uncover how historians shape memories on everyone’s behalf.

Speaker 1:

I remember being in kindergarten, and I looked down at one point and there was a gumnut on the carpet, and so I turned to my friend and I said to her, “Hey, I bet I can put this up my nostril,” and she said to me, “No, don’t be silly. You can’t. It’s not going to fit.” I proved her wrong. I put that gumnut directly up my right nostril.

Ginger Gorman:

Take a second to think about your earliest memory. Where does it take you?

Speaker 3:

My first earliest memory is of being wedged between two big bookcases. I must’ve been three or four. All I can remember is looking down and seeing the edge of my pink, hemmed dress and me trying to tuck my legs, stubby toes and all under my body as my mother hit me with the feather duster.

Ginger Gorman:

Is it as vivid as if it happened yesterday?

Speaker 4:

My memory is sitting on the beach, just on the very edge of the water, and the water just sort of, little waves coming in, and the next thing I remember was being faced down in the water. I don’t remember being pulled out, but obviously, I was. I remember it being really, really peaceful, really comfortable. The water was incredibly warm and just floating back and forth. No struggling, no struggling to breathe. It was incredibly peaceful.

Ginger Gorman:

Or is it a few, patchy images in your mind’s eye?

Speaker 5:

My earliest memory is something that I always come back to. I was about four years old. I was in Cairns, and my body was dangling into the swimming pool, I was hanging onto the edge, my legs were underneath, and then suddenly, I felt a little tweak on my big toe, and of course, it was my father swimming up underwater to grab my big toe. I may remember me laughing, but actually, it just all goes fuzzy from there, other than I have recollections of this every single time I go to the swimming pool, even to this day.

Ginger Gorman:

Memory is fascinating, isn’t it? It’s like a filing cabinet in our brains, except the filing system is kind of unreliable. I did a call out on social media for people to share their earliest memories, and the response was overwhelming. Some were beautiful, some heartbreaking, and some were common memories shared across Twitter and Facebook. We can replay the most unremarkable memories over and over or a smell, or a song can trigger a memory of something or someone that we thought was long forgotten.

Speaker 6:

I was down visiting my nan and pop in rural Victoria with mum and the rest of the family, and we were going to go out go-karting this one day. I think I must’ve been about 12 or 13 at the time, so we jumped in the car, we kind of go to the outskirts of town where there’s this go-kart track, and when we pull up, it’s next to these harvested fields. I get out of the car and take a deep breath, and immediately, this smell just kind of overwhelms me, and I get this really weird sense of deja vu, like I’ve been here before or something, and I’d say, “Mum, this smell is so familiar to me. Why would that be?,” and she laughed. She said, “I cannot believe that you remember that.”

Speaker 6:

“You were just a baby.” She tells me this story that when I was really young, and she couldn’t get childcare or daycare, she used to have to take me to work sometimes, and at the time she was working, harvesting tomatoes in the tomato fields, and so she would put me in the shade, in a box with all the overripe tomatoes that they couldn’t use, and so I could sit in there and squish them and throw them around to my heart’s content, and as I said, I’ve kind of got no recollection of this actually happening, but as soon as I smelled that smell, I just knew that somehow I was connected to this smell in some way.

Ginger Gorman:

Then again, sometimes our memory can totally fail us. I lived in this huge house in London when I was a little girl, and I remembered so vividly the lounge room as this giant place with red velvet curtains and dark, wooden floorboards. Then, when I was 13, I went back there, and I knocked on the door and asked the people who are currently living there if I could look inside this house that had been so significant to me, except the weird thing was this room was not at all like I remembered. It was so much smaller, the floorboards weren’t as dark, and the velvet curtains weren’t even red.

Amanda Barnier:

One reason could be that they’ve changed the furnishing, I guess.

Ginger Gorman:

Amanda Barnier is a Professor of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University, and she’s also a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

Amanda Barnier:

But a different reason might be that the memories that you have of being so small have come to you from photographs or other people’s stories or other people’s memories, and that you’ve done what we called a source confusion, where you have taken on board the memories of other people or the information from other people and come to believe that they’re your own, and that’s actually quite common as well.

Ginger Gorman:

See what I mean? It’s a filing system so unreliable, that we stuff other people’s memories in there and try to pass them off as our own. This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman, and today on the pod, we’ll learn how memory works, and we’ll look at the power of collective memory. Why are our memories so much stronger when we have someone else to remember with us?

Amanda Barnier:

Yeah, so it’s good to think about memories having three main stages, so we need to get the memories in, and we call that encoding, so as we walk around the world, we’re looking at things, we’re hearing things, we’re experiencing things, we’re thinking things. That information needs to sort of come into our cognitive system, into our memory system, and the most important factor there is paying attention, so we encode or bring into memory the things that we pay attention. The second stage of memory is what we call our working memory. It’s sort of like the TV screen of the mind. It’s what we’re looking at and thinking about right now.

Amanda Barnier:

Working memory or short-term memory has a really small capacity. It has a limited capacity. If you tell me your phone number and I don’t write it down or I don’t repeat it, it’s going to slip out of mind in about 15 seconds, but if I’ve paid attention to it and I’ve repeated it and I’ve rehearsed it and I connect it to other things, then it’ll go into long-term memory. Long-term memory is the place where all of our experiences from the past, the things that we’ve learned about the world, the stuff we’ve learned at school, information is stored over a very long period of time, almost an unlimited period of time, and so we’ve encoded the information and it’s come into our long-term memory storage. The third part about memory is obviously, we need to get those memories out.

Amanda Barnier:

If someone asks us a question, “What’s a great Chinese restaurant that you’ve been to?,” we need to be able to dig into memory and say, “When was the last time I was at a restaurant?,” “What did I have?,” “Where was it?,” and get that information out again, and we call that retrieval, so information needs to pass successfully through these three stages, encoding, storage, and then be retrieved again. Now, obviously, that’s the sort of the mental or mind stages of memory, which is sort of like the software, but also there’s a hardware component to memory, which is our actual brain, the neural structures that are distributed across the brain that allow that information to be retained and kept. We know that lots of parts of the brain are involved in recording memories, and then re-experiencing them later.

Ginger Gorman:

Amanda, we’ve all had that experience where we swear we remember something, and then we go back later and we find out that in fact, our memory was inaccurate, so I wonder if we can actually trust memory. What do you think?

Amanda Barnier:

I think we absolutely can in the sense as long as we understand what memory is for. There’s sort of three big functions for memory that psychologists talk about. The first one is what we call a directive function, and that’s navigating the world, so I park my car, I go into the shopping center, I need to be able to navigate back to my car, so I need to have retained enough information, but in a year’s time, when I go to that shopping center again, I don’t need to remember where I parked at that last time, so I don’t need to keep that information. The second function of memory is what we call an identity function. I know who I am as a person, as Amanda because I remember things from my past.

Amanda Barnier:

I know that, about the experiences I’ve had, the kind of values that are important to me, the things that I’ve, love in the world or I don’t like in the world, and I have memories about them. I am who I am because I have memories, and I hold the memories I have because of my identity. The third big function is what we call a social function for memories, so we connect, we fall in love with people, we make connections and groups and have a sense of intimacy with friends and family members and other people in the community by sharing memories all of the time.

Ginger Gorman:

Okay, so that helps me understand how memory works, but why is some people better at remembering than others? Some people do just have a knack for remembering, but it also has a bit to do with the people around us. Parents lay the foundation for their children’s memory capacity, and our relationships can have a much greater impact than we realize on memory.

Amanda Barnier:

When we’re little kids, if you say to one of your kids, “I want you to go and clean up your room, and then get dressed in your school uniform, and get your lunch box and meet me out at the car,” that’s four different tasks that you’re telling a kid to remember to do. A child with very strong working memory skills can remember all four things and will follow them. A child with poor working memory skills might only remember one, and then has to be reminded for the others, so they needed to be supported and scaffolded by the parent or by the environment, so there may well be genetically-based individual differences in some component parts of memory abilities, but memory and remembering and learning to tell stories about ourselves and our world is very much a nurture kind of activity. It’s very much something that we learn in our families with our parents. They teach us how to be good remembers.

Amanda Barnier:

We talk together about stories. They scaffold our memory. One of my favorite studies is a study of some children who were taken to the zoo for the day, and they came back from the zoo and they were asked to remember with their parents, to tell their parents about the story of the zoo visit, and one of the little kids said to his parents, “Well, we went to the zoo and we went to the toilets, and the toilets were like this,” and the mum said, “Don’t. Don’t tell me about the toilets. Tell me about the giraffes.”

Amanda Barnier:

We teach our children and we reinforce the kind of good storytelling of the beginnings, the middles and the end of like how we feel about stories because we tell stories all the time as adults to our kids, don’t we? We reflect on our past. Robyn Fivush from Emory University has shown that adolescents who know the stories of their parents and their grandparents have higher levels of resilience and emotional well-being compared to their peers where they don’t share those kinds of stories together, so there’s something very protective about a family environment that shares stories.

Ginger Gorman:

This is something I think most parents do, whether they realize it or not, but then, there are cultures where this scaffolding is very intentional.

Amanda Barnier:

There’s some excellent research that shows in New Zealand, in Māori cultures, they are very much an oral tradition of oral storytelling. They have the earliest known, earliest childhood memories, so if I was to ask you, “What’s your earliest memory?,” for instance, then usually it’s around, I think about the three, three and a half, four or something like that, but children in Māori cultures have earliest early memories or first memories, because of the way in which there’s such a rich oral tradition and stories of individuals and of the community and the collective, and that’s where that idea of how important it is to focus on shared remembering, and not just individual memory, because in so many cultures, memories are about we or us, and not just about I.

Ginger Gorman – Break in pod

Do you love the Social Sciences? September 6 to 12 is actually Social Sciences Week, a week-long celebration that unites the disciplines and shares the latest and greatest from Australia’s social scientists. There’ll be stacks of events held across the country and online, so visit socialsciencesweek.org.au to find out more and get involved. Memories are strengthened by storytelling, reminiscing and people asking us questions. Researchers like Amanda are learning more and more about the way that memories are recalled. Other people, it seems, are a key part of the process and our closest relationships can help strengthen our capacity to remember.

Amanda Barnier:

We grow up with parents, sometimes with siblings, with other family members. We have friends, we have colleagues. We live in a community, so actually, remembering … Sharing memories might, in fact be the default, rather than remembering alone. We predict, or we’ve hypothesized that there’s a great deal of sort of cognitive and social benefits, so mental benefits of remembering with others, especially as we age. We know that older adults can sometimes struggle to recall memories from their past. They might have difficulty remembering the most important memories that define who they are, and having friends and family around them, such as a long-term partner can be very powerful in reminding people and cueing those memories.

Ginger Gorman:

Amanda and her colleagues have tested this hypothesis using around 50 couples, all in their 70’s, heterosexual as it happens, and all married for more than 40 years.

Amanda Barnier:

We did a whole bunch of memory tests with them. For instance, we asked them to tell us about the day they got married. We asked them for lists of families and friends and things like this, and we got them to do that alone. The next week, we came back and we asked the husbands and wives to sit together and to have a fresh go at those memory tasks, but to work collaboratively on them. What we found on average, across all of the about 50 couples, is that remembering together led to better recall, better performance than the sum of when they remembered alone, so collaboration was beneficial, but interestingly, not every single couple of those 50 were equally successful in supporting one another in remembering, and we found some really strong individual differences in the way that they talked to one another or communicated.

Amanda Barnier:

We were able to sort of separate out what we call positive communication behaviors or tactics, reminding one another or giving them little cues, reinforcing or saying, “Yes, exactly, exactly,” and adding a bit more information versus what we considered negative communication tactics, where people would say, “You’re wrong,” “That didn’t happen,” “I think we’re finished now, let’s stop remembering,” so the way that they spoke to one another. Now, it might be the case that those communication tactics are reflective of broader relationship aspects that we didn’t ask about, but one factor we did find that had a big impact on the success of their communication was hearing loss. If one of them or both of them had difficulty in their hearing, you could see it in their communication. Their communication was less successful, their memory collaboration was less successful, and that implies that if you start to be sort of cognitively and socially isolated from your partner who can help you in remembering, in being cognitively active, it can have a detrimental effect.

Ginger Gorman:

Other studies have shown similar results. Amanda cited a longitudinal study from the UK, looking at aging and dementia.

Amanda Barnier:

These are studies, I think there was a couple of hundred thousand people involved in this meta-analysis, where they were looking at predictors of cognitive decline and dementia, and they found that people who were married had a much lower risk on average of developing dementia, compared to people who were lifelong singletons or people who were bereaved, who had lost their partners. One implication is that being in an intimate, long-term relationships, sharing events, sharing experiences, sharing memories can be very protective of both our psychological health and also cognition.

Ginger Gorman:

I really don’t want the summary of this episode to be “get married to avoid dementia”, and of course, that’s not what Amanda is suggesting. Not everyone who lives alone winds up being diagnosed with dementia, and on the flip side, plenty of married people do experience cognitive decline, so regardless of your relationship status, what does this information actually mean and how can it be of use to your circumstances?

Amanda Barnier:

Of course, not everybody’s married, and so we need to think about, “What is it specifically about those intimate relationships? What’s the ingredients for success there?” In some of our work we’ve been looking at, “What’s the ways in which people intimate partners might communicate?,” or if, for instance, someone is in an aged care home, we’ve been doing some research like this at the moment, and a really dedicated carer might be able to use the same kind of techniques to support the older person’s cognition to bring those memories forward, but it’s important to differentiate between, “Do I need to have a 40-year history with you to know what happened to you all those years ago, or can I just use the kind of conversational or communication techniques to draw that information forward?,” and that would be just as powerful.

Ginger Gorman:

Collaborative memory doesn’t only exist within relationships, it’s societal as well. When we learn historical accounts by say reading news archives or watching documentaries, these are, of course memories that have been shaped by collective experiences, but when we pull all of our memories of a moment in time and condense them down to a historical text, we have to be careful not to lose the many different perspectives that made up those memories.

Amanda Barnier:

One of the real-world costs, I guess of remembering with others is the idea that we might forget or lose certain kind of information. I’ve been talking recently about with our memory experts around the world of memory in a time of pandemic, what did they think that we would remember from this time? We kind of worried together about the fact that as individuals or as groups or communities, we might converge on certain kinds of information and forget other important nuances together as well, so that is in a sense, one risk of shared remembering that we start to converge on an agreed narrative about things, and we lose important disagreements or information that is really critical to a more sophisticated understanding of what we’ve all gone through.

Ginger Gorman:

That’s a fascinating point. We are in a real historical moment right now, but we have no idea yet how historians will reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic, and who will become the heroes and villains of its narrative, but what are historians saying about it right now? Professor Kate Darian-Smith is a Cultural Historian at the University of Tasmania, and she’s also a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Professor Kate Darian-Smith:

One of the things about the pandemic is that there are obviously official and global messages of how nations are coping and what is unfolding in front of us, but there’s also been extraordinary collection of everyday responses as the pandemic has unfolded. In fact, I would say that we’ve seen quite a remarkable collection of archives, whether they will endure into the future, but people have poured out in a very individual level how they have been coping with lockdown, what that means, and I think that is extremely important too, because that creates an archive, even if you like a counter-archive of the ways in which people experienced at the time.

Ginger Gorman:

I actually can’t imagine what it will be like to be the social media archeologists, trolling through the posts we’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and Instagram. How will it change the way that historical accounts are collated, and how do we get these personal accounts before we were all oversharing online?

Professor Kate Darian-Smith:

The documentation of history, the archives, the paper trails is really important to how narratives of the past are constructed, and I think this is where oral history is really, really important, because there’s certainly been a big shift in historical practice over the last 50 years to collect information about, and tell the stories of those groups who have had less access to having their stories told, so you can think of examples such as women, migrant communities whose English is not their first language, so I think that documentation through oral history and giving those stories a status as history is very important.

Ginger Gorman:

It is, and what it’s making me think about is when you don’t record people’s stories in some way, then that actually influences our memory of history.

Professor Kate Darian-Smith:

It certainly does, and it can also influence the way in which history is written. If you think about the way in which personal testimony in an archive, and that could be a written testimony, it could be an oral testimony, it could be even documentation about a person, so not from them, but about them, having those archives, that’s almost your threshold for the writing of history and for the telling of stories.

Ginger Gorman:

Yes.

Professor Kate Darian-Smith:

Unless history is written and spoken about, we talk about the past in certain ways, unless that occurs, many of our narratives and our understandings will just be held by individuals by small groups, but won’t be known more widely, and won’t be influencing that public story.

Ginger Gorman:

I’m from a family of Holocaust survivors, and I’m thinking about the extent to which the Holocaust has been documented, and therefore, the history that we have, but perhaps other genocides, like the one that happened in Rwanda, for example, have not been documented to the same extent.

Professor Kate Darian-Smith:

Yeah. Look, I think that’s a very important point. The boom in memory studies, and it certainly has been a boom in looking at the theoretical, the scholarly, the ways in which individuals and groups recollect the past and share the past, was very much stimulated by the Holocaust in Europe, and the need to collect those stories and to bear witness, I think has been a really quite a driving force in forcing scholars to rethink, “How do we recreate the past? How do we tell the stories in ways that go beyond dry documents in the archive?,” but your point about certain groups do not have their stories told in the way that we need them to be told, I think is very important, and that returns to the point about writing history is about drawing upon sources and using those sources. Look, I suppose another example is looking at aboriginal experiences, recording those, looking at the past, looking at its impact now is part of that broader move of collecting those stories and making sense of them in the present.

Ginger Gorman:

Going back to the idea of unreliable memories, Kate made a great point about how perspectives change over time, so our account of lockdown, how we feel about the vaccine rollout or our views on who did or didn’t obey the rules, those strongly held views will undoubtedly change once the pandemic is behind us.

Professor Kate Darian-Smith:

I think of [inaudible 00:26:34] and oral historian, that sometimes the way someone feels at the time, and they may record that, they may that in letters or diaries, 10 years later, 20 years later, their account of that event can shit and be quite different, so there’s a sort of disconnection often at an individual level, as well as a broader community and national level.

Ginger Gorman:

Yes. It almost makes me want to jump 50 years ahead, obviously, I probably won’t be alive then, but to see what is actually told in terms of history from my memories of now. Kate, what it’s making me think about is that there are facts, and then there’s individual or national moral truths, if you like, and they’re not necessarily the same.

Professor Kate Darian-Smith:

Yeah. Look, I think there are always this tension. Yes, there are facts. War is declared on this day, government topples on another date, but how people respond to them is much more complex and nuanced than that and can shift over time, so I think we have to understand that for me, history is not just facts. I don’t want to deny facts and I don’t want to deny an official record, but we need to understand what that means in the everyday lives and actually the broader, if you like, global relations of individuals and nations and at the international level. I think this is why studying history and studying memory is such a fascinating area, because the past tells us so much about ourselves.

Ginger Gorman:

I wonder what historians would make of this podcast 50 years from now! Thanks for listening to Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman. Before I fill you in on our plans for the next episode, Social Sciences Week is coming up from 6 to 12, September. It’s a week-long celebration that unites the disciplines and shares the latest and greatest from Australia’s social scientists.

Ginger Gorman:

There’ll be stacks of events held across the country and online, so visit socialsciencesweek.org.au to find out more and get involved. Next time on Seriously Social, we look at the role money plays in justice. Who should pay and who should receive compensation, and what, if anything, changes when the hammer falls? See you then.

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