Sunday, March 18, 2012



This is the second post about memory on THE GENERALIST. The first post – ‘Memory: A Very Short Introduction’ – is just that, based on a book of the same name. It gave me some preparation for tackling Alison Winter’s new history of memory science in the 20th century. Its an intensely detailed landmark work of great importance, combining elegant writing and cross-disciplinary scholarship on a grand scale. It opens up so many interesting avenues of thought and reflection that this review can only give some of its flavours. Fortunately, you can  read my scribblings alongside Jenny Diski’s great review, which is where I first discovered it: The Me Who Knew It – Jenny Diski [‘London Review of Books’/Feb 2012]

Memory is a mystery. Winter defines it as ‘the basic recording mechanism on which both self and society rest.’

‘The stories we tell about our own pasts are central to how we understand ourselves,’

‘…everyone agreed that the stories we tell about our personal past define who we are in the present,’

‘…our understanding of who we are is intimately tied to other reflections on past experiences and actions.’

These three short quotes, each with a slightly different nuance, should be pinned up on everyone’s wall as a meditation.

Here follows some brief brushstroke summaries:

The are two main theories about memory. One is that everything that has happened to us is stored in a stable state in our brains and is theoretically accessible to recall. The other is that memory is a dynamic system which is constantly being elaborates and shaped every time we remember.

This raises the question of the reliability of memory. Research has shown that memories that feel detailed and convincing are, or can be. completely unreliable. Its seems that the brain is quite capable of building a confabulation around a true ‘memory fragment’ and skilfully interweaving imagined details to create a more complete story. So how can you distinguish a false memory from a true one?

This first came up in the context of a courtroom at the turn of the 20th century. Judges and juries have to discern the truth behind eye-witness statements – a problem that is still with us. Countless trials have demonstrated the fallibility of such evidence. Truth serums, hypnosis and lie detectors all, in turn, were introduced to try and overcome this problem and deliver a ‘real truth’ through scientific means. All proved controversial and open to coercion and suggestion. Some found greater use in trying to deal with police corruption.

This links to the issue of traumatic memories, so shocking that they are buried somewhere in our unconscious. The science of psychoanalysis was founded on the idea that these repressed memories could be released to allow healing to begin. This concept has been challenged in recent years by research that suggests that every time you remember, it strengthens the trauma rather than dispersing it.

Periodically the USA has been plagued by strange crazes associated with uncovering buried memories. First in the 1950s, there was a serious fad for recovering memories of past lives,. In the1980s, a national craze swept America concerning recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. To combat this, a scientific lobbying foundation coined the term ‘false memory syndrome’ and the 'Memory Wars’ broke out – an extraordinary episode of psychiatric history. (The first alien abduction stories appeared in Nov 1961).

One fascinating strand of Winter’s book concerns the relationship between memory and the new communication/media technologies of photography, phonograph and cinema – all introduced between 1850-1900. They all became associated with the idea of remembering and the metaphor of the a filmstrip, a photo or a piece of sound tape became an analogy used to discuss the way the memory works.

In 1914, one of the early memory scientists wrote an essay on the psychology of film which it described as a ‘new technique to control a spectator’s attention, perceptions and emotions’ which it did by ‘externalising the internal workings of the mind.’

Flashbacks, first used in the cinema, later become a concept incorporated into memory science. So called ‘flashbulb’ memory imitates real photography and Henri Cartier Bresson’s Decisive Moment.

The famous movie ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, which centres on a brainwashed Korean War prisoner who is programmed to kill the President was showing in Dallas in the weeks before Kennedy’s real assassination and may have been viewed by Lee Harvey Oswald. Later a serial murderer claimed that he’d been driven to his killings by memories of the shower scene in ‘Psycho’.

In recent years, Eternal Sunshine of A Spotless Mind’ turns on the idea not of memory recall but memory elimination. In the years since the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 1980, work has proceeded apace to try and bring such techniques into reality to treat the combat troops of tomorrow. This is a world invented by Philip K. Dick, whose paranoid visions seemed to have anticipated such developments.

Winter concludes: ‘The sciences of memory may well prove at least as consequential as [evolutionary biology] for the future of our society and our selves.’

 Memory: Fragments of a Modern History by Alison Winter
Chicago, 319 pp, £19.50, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 226 90258 6

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