To ask an average educated person hailing from contemporary western education system what memory is, one is likely to be met with the metaphor of Brain as a computer where the act of remembering and recalling is accomplished via a biological hard drive. Such a claim seems downright axiomatic. But anyone not keeping up with contemporary memory research might be surprised to find out that axiomatic is exactly what this definition of memory is not. In fact, it is an understatement to say that the concept of memory as being one’s capacity to store and recall information is in the midst of dissolving. Because memory is such a fundamental facet of human existence, according to Brockmeier (2010), a Psychology professor from University of Manitoba, Canada, the deconstruction of our current concept of memory is being headed by disciplines ranging from Neuroscience and Psychiatry to something even seemingly unrelated behavior as internet blogging.
The story behind deconstruction of our contemporary understanding of memory begins with Neuroscience, the one field which once was most rigorous in adhering to brain as a computer framework of memory that, through revelation of various memory mechanisms, is now the primary source of threat in bringing down the traditional definition of memory. It is challenging to accept the definition of memory as recalling past experiences when neuroanatomical studies show that there is no biological correlate that distinguishes between a person perceiving an object in real time versus remembering that same object (Szpunar, Chan, & McDermott, 2009). The distinction between seeing an object in present versus remembering it is an act of interpretation that happens at the level of brain, the self (whatever that is), and within one’s particular culture that guides its members in distinguishing between present and non - present; assuming such a temporal delineation even exists.
Things would be simpler if it was merely the case that at the neuronal level, for example, there is no difference between touching an apple in real time compared to remembering touching an apple in the past. Unfortunately, neurophysiologically there isn’t even a difference between an individual recalling touching an apple versus mistakenly imagining remembering touching an apple in the past (Bruckner & Carroll, 2007). This finding must not strike as a surprise to any fans of fiction because imagining acts described in a well written book sometimes can be more emotionally powerful than reality. However, when one starts to connect the dots one cannot help but realize that there is no basis for distinguishing between “true” and “false” memories. No neurophysiologist can look at someone’s brain activity and say that this memory is right and the other one is wrong because both true and false memories hold the same “real” neuronal status. Thus, the definition of memory cannot be just recalling something that happened in the past.
The field of Philosophy in recent decades has provided its own insight into ephemeral nature of traditional definition of memory via people like Foucault and Derrida who made the argument that memories in principle are meaning constructions (Brockmeier, 2005). When a historian, for example, decides to document a particular event, she doesn’t simply makes a one to one Xerox copy of that particular event in written form. Some incidents are deliberately left and others are deliberately left in for the sake of a particular story that the historian is trying to tell. Additionally, depending on the subject matter sometimes different narratives get to co-exist and on other occasions a power struggle plays out between different perspectives that culminates in one perspective becoming the dominant one. This philosophy of memory as meaning construction has even resulted in birth of a new genre of academic disciplines in humanities that aims to understand cultural practices of past and present under the guise of “remembering” any particular social practice as something that is constantly in flux (Andrews, 2007).
Lastly, the field of media and technology has had a particularly unexpected impact on the concept of memories because of behavior like internet blogging. The act of writing one’s thoughts down and sharing it with others is something that has been going on for centuries. That much is not new or strange. What is unexpected is the degree to which anyone and everyone’s expressed thoughts in the cyberspace will continue to digitally exist as long as internet infrastructure remains online. Having a persistent store of one’s thoughts that is accessible to everyone begins to blur lines between personal and the collective (Dijck, 2007). Individuals are increasingly losing the ability to claim that their autobiographical memory about something that happened years ago holds most legitimacy if there is blogged information about that event publicly available that contradicts one’s autobiographical memories. Our digitized public memories are on route to becoming more authentic than memories contained within our private biological hardware. The significance of this development is monumental. The computer can no longer be seen as a device that merely stores information but an apparatus playing an increasingly fundamental role in mediating our self-narratives.
In light of all these developments where are we now with respect to defining memory? At the very least memory can no longer be seen as stored information in our brains. To remember instead means to partake in a process embedded in an ecology spanning from one’s biological sense of self to everyday life-meaning contexts existing both online and offline. Memory is not a noun. It is a discursive activity that is constantly in flux and always open to re-negotiation. Beyond this, the path onto a new conceptualization of memory remains untraversed.
Andrews, M. (2007). Shaping history: Narratives of political change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brockmeier, J. (2005). The text of the mind. In C. Johnson & D. Johnson (Eds.), The mind as a scientific object: Between brain and culture (pp. 432-452). New York: Oxford University Press.
Brockmeier, J. (2010). After the archive: remapping memory. Culture & Psychology, 16, 6 – 35.
Bruckner, R.I., & Carroll, D.C. (2007). Self-projection and the brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 49-57.
Dijck, J.V. (2007). Mediated memories in the digital age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Szpunar, K.K., Chan, J.C.K., & McDermott, K.B. (2009). Contextual processing in episodic future thought. Cerebral Cortex, 19, 1539-1548.