Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Scientists, Humanists, and Collective Memory

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Angelika Bammer and Hazel Gold

What exactly do we mean when say “collective memory” and how might individuals’ personal memories of an event converge into a cohesive memory maintained by a group? This was the central inquiry of the second CMBC Faculty Lunch Discussion of the spring 2015 semester, titled “Now you see it, now you don’t: scientists, humanists, and collective memory” and led by Dr. Angelika Bammer (Institute for Liberal Arts, Emory University) and Dr. Hazel Gold (Spanish and Portuguese, Emory University). In the fall of 2014, Drs. Bammer and Gold co-taught a CMBC sponsored seminar called “Mapping Memory: History, Culture, and the Brain ”, the purpose of which was to examine how our memories of the past shape the present from a cross-disciplinary perspective. The class struggled with how to approach collective memory from an interdisciplinary perspective, failing to reach a satisfying resolution by the semester’s end. Drs. Bammer and Gold reviewed this struggle in the lunch discussion, and raised questions about how to best define and conceptualize collective memory.

The “Mapping Memory” class was organized around two aims. The first aim was to foster an open inquiry into relationships between memory, the past, and the present from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. The second aim was to use the assumptions and approaches of one discipline as a check on the accepted premises and methods from another discipline. These aims worked well for the class at the outset of the semester, as the class examined the processes of memory and forgetting within individual minds. The class studied memory and forgetting from a neurobiological perspective, reading case studies and scientific research to understand how memories are encoded and retrieved at a neuronal level. Approaching these questions through a humanities lens, the class also looked at how individual acts of memory are represented in literary texts, film, and art. For example, the class read the Jorge Luis Borges story, “Funes the Memorious”, about a boy who acquires the ability to remember every detail of his life, down to the shape of every cloud he sees in the sky. The protagonist’s experience is similar to that of people living with Highly Superior Autobiographical memory, a rare condition whose existence invites questions about the limits of memory capacity in the human brain.
When the class began investigating the question of collective memory, it ran into difficulty reconciling perspectives from the humanities and the sciences. The term ‘collective memory’ was first coined by the sociologist and philosopher Maurice Halbwachs in the 1950s and refers to the larger social framework in which individual memories are believed to be constructed and embedded. Halbwachs argues that memory is largely a social act, given that many of our memories are laid down and recalled in social settings and for social purposes. Halbwachs asserts that memory is often invoked in response to questions posed by others, and that we assume others’ perspective in formulating a response. Hence, group membership informs the encoding and retrieval of memories, such that memories are formulated within a larger social framework, rather than in individual minds. According to Halbwachs (Halbwachs,1992):

There is no point in seeking where they [memories] are preserved in my brain or in some nook of my mind to which I alone have access: for they are recalled to me externally, and the groups of which I am a part at any time give me the means to reconstruct them, upon condition, to be sure, that I turn toward them and adopt, at least for the moment, their way of thinking… It is in this sense that there exists a collective memory and social frameworks for memory; it is to the degree that our individual thought places itself in these frameworks and participates in this memory that it is capable of the act of recollection.

To understand how collective memory would be approached by cognitive scientists, Drs. Gold and Bammer invited Dr. Daniel Schacter (Psychology, Harvard University) to visit Emory and speak with their class. Dr. Schacter has researched and written extensively on the topic of memory, and often appeals to the humanities in his own writing. Drs. Gold and Bammer believed the visit could prove fruitful for synthesizing a richer understanding of collective memory by forging a bridge between the humanities and the sciences. While Dr. Schacter was familiar with the term ‘collective memory’, he does not recognize it as a useful or meaningful construct in the field of cognitive science. He understands the term to be used metaphorically, and does not believe it can be operationalized and measured in an experimental setting. Dr. Schacter’s objection to ‘collective memory’ as a meaningful construct in the sciences compelled Dr. Gold and Bammer’s class to reflect on collective memory and try to make more sense of it—reflections which were actively discussed in the CMBC lunch talk.

A central challenge in defining and understanding collective memory is how to delineate the ambiguous boundary between individual and collective memories. This inquiry leads to questions about ownership of memories–when is a memory an entity we can claim individual ownership over, and when and how does it become collective? Dr. Robyn Fivush (Psychology, Emory University) attended the talk and argued that we are born into cultures that prescribe the way we should live our lives and form our memories. As a result, our memories are heavily shaped and constrained by cultural stories and definitions from the very beginning of our lives, such that it may be difficult to speak of veritable ‘individual’ memories that exist outside of a sociocultural framework.

The boundary between individual and collective memories is also murky when we stop to consider how a cohesive collective memory emerges from the individuals’ disparate experiences of an event. In the CMBC faculty lunch discussion, attendees all shared their personal experiences of 9/11, an exercise which revealed that many people’s recollections activated associated memories of tangential events and people. When and how do all these personal memories of an event like 9/11, each with their own complex web of associations and memories, hang together and become the collective memory we speak of when we say “never forget” 9/11? In discussing this issue, Dr. Bammer also raised questions about what gets lost as this collective memory emerges, and what happens to all the individual memories along the way?

Defining ownership over individual and collective memories in turn raises questions about the transmission of memories across time and space. Can individuals claim to have access to a collective memory of an event for which they were not present? For example, children born after 9/11 will have had no first-hand experience of the event, but will hear others’ accounts and be exposed to media coverage of the event many times throughout their lives. Do we acknowledge these children as having shared ownership of the collective memory of 9/11? Many attendees participating in the discussion endorsed the belief that intergenerational memories constitute collective memory, for the experiences of an event are effectively shared and constitute memories that are central to people’s identities. If collective memories can be claimed to extend to individuals who do not have first-hand experience of the event, they would stand in sharp contrast with Dr. Schacter’s definition of memory. In Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, Schacter explains “In order to be experienced as a memory, the retrieved information must be recollected in the context of a particular time and place and with some reference to oneself as a participant in the episode” (Schacter, 2008, p.17).

Defining collective memory also raises thorny questions about the reliability of memories and whether the term ‘story’ may be more appropriate than ‘memory’ in some contexts. When events are transmitted across generations, details may be added, altered, or dropped, calling into question the verisimilitude of the memory. Hence, it may be argued that memories that have been altered in various ways may be more accurately described as ‘stories’. This does not necessarily discriminate collective memories from individual ones. Dr. Gold pointed out that individual memories are altered when they are reconstructed by the mind, and that individual memory is also fallible in all kinds of ways—a point that Dr. Schacter raised himself in his talk on the seven sins of memory when he was visiting Emory. Thus, fallibility should not necessarily be a reason to deem collective memory any less valid than individual memory from a scientific perspective.

Although Dr. Schacter was not amenable to the idea of ‘collective memory’ from the perspective of a scholar in the cognitive sciences, his visit ultimately proved to be generative for the class. Dr. Bammer explained that the students were frustrated with Dr. Schacter’s response, and that it motivated them to tackle “richer, more nuanced, more risky, more experimental projects” probing questions concerned with collective memory. For example, one student examined how collective memories of the Irish famine are represented in Irish literature and how these memories may be affecting the way people experience the current economic crisis. Many unresolved questions remain concerning how to define and understand collective memory, but Drs. Gold and Bammer’s class and the CMBC faculty lunch discussion made progress in hashing out these questions and opening a dialogue about how to address them from a cross-disciplinary perspective.

— Melanie Pincus


Halbwachs, M. (1992). On Collective Memory. University of Chicago Press.

Schacter, D. L. (2008). Searching for Memory: The Brain, Th. Basic Books.

About Melanie Pincus

Melanie is a PhD student in the Neuroscience program at Emory. She is studying how chronic stress in female macaques interacts with experiential factors, including pubertal timing and diet, to alter the development of corticolimbic circuitry important for emotion regulation. She enjoys pursuing inter-disciplinary questions to better understand complex relationships between the developing brain, neuroendocrine system, gut microbiome, and behavior. She is a CMBC affiliate and contributed blog posts for the CMBC Lunch series from 2014-2015.
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