Tuesday, 6 September 2011

How Different Cultures See Memory

Different cultures and religious traditions conceptualise the two aspects of memory; learning and recall, differently. No system of psychology, mythology or culture claims that memory is not necessary for individual identity.

Which animal has the best memory? Find the answer at the end.

In Indian thought, smriti from the Sanskrit root smr to remember, is the commonest term used for memory. Memory is not only a repository of lessons learnt and experiences, but much more. All that happens in an individual’s lifetime or what the individual learns is short-term memory and long-term memory is spread over several lifetimes. This long-term memory can be accessed using special Yoga or meditation techniques.

In Chinese mythology, Meng Po, the Lady of Forgetfulness, gives a bittersweet drink to erase all memories just before a person is reincarnated in human form. In Japan, there is Kokūzō Bosatsu 虚空蔵菩薩, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom & Memory, very important especially for the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism.

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The ancient Aztecs had a god of ancestral memory, Tezcatlipoca. The Greeks had Mnemosyne. She was a Titaness, a daughter of Gaia and Uranus. Zeus slept with her on nine separate nights and created the nine muses.

The Christian Saint Augustine (354-430 AD) believed searching his memory could take him to God. For him, memory encompasses all of a person's experiences and knowledge. Personal identity, sensations and perceptions, imaginations and dreams, hopes and fears, emotions and awareness of self are all in the memory. 
“Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiring mystery, my God, a power of profound and infinite multiplicity. So great is the power of memory, so great is the force of life in a human being whose life is mortal.” (*Confessions. *10.17.26).
Islam is very practical about memory. 
By degrees shall we teach thee (Prophet Muhammad) to declare (the message), so thou shalt not forget, except as God wills ... (Sura 87:6-7, Yusuf Ali)”. 
Ibn Mas'ud reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: 
Wretched is the man who says: I forgot such and such a sura, or I forget such and such a verse, but he has been made to forget. (Muslim: book 4, number 1726, Siddique)
Jung's theory of collective unconscious incorporates Darwin's theory of evolution with ancient mythology. Jung's collective unconscious is a "storehouse of latent memory traces inherited from man's ancestral past, a past that includes not only the racial history of man as a separate species but his pre-human or animal ancestry as well."

Australian aboriginal children of desert origin, from 6 to 17 years, performed at significantly higher levels than white Australian children in visual spatial memory (American Psychologist, 1971, 26, 168-179), Cognitive Psychology 13, 434-460 (1981).

For Australian Aborigines memory is sacred. The dreaming or Altjeringa is a time out of time itself when totemic being formed the Creation and left jiva or guruwari, a seed power is deposited in the earth. Everything that happens leaves a vibrational residue in Dreaming and can only be accessed through extraordinary states of consciousness. Here is a lovely Australian Aboriginal story.

Many indigenous peoples all over the world use the concept of blood memory to understand how knowledge and memory of traditions are stored in the living human cells or genetic makeup of a human body.

What is the Etymology of the Word memory?

Currently the English word, “remember” hints at something static, meaning that we extract saved fixed items and accumulated knowledge. Accessing our memory is like going to get something out a shelf, where we put it in the past.

Did the word originally indicate a dynamic activity where the person who re-members has a privileged and unique access and control over his/her knowledge of the past which s/he can re-member or process. Could we also say that if we are not consciously aware of something in our memory, we have de-membered it?

Ancient Celtic Mythology seems to support this interpretation. In Celtic mythology, there are many deities connected to memory e.g. Beli the god of death and king of the underworld, Arianrhod the virgin goddess of reincarnation, Cerridwen the Great Mother or goddess of nature and Taliesin, a mythical Welsh hero could all evoke and bring back memories. But the Merlin the Wizard possessed the most fascinating skills; he could erase memories.

What is Memory?

Is human memory only a physical attribute of the brain like the working of a computer RAM or is memory a cognitive function involving learning?

How is memory defined? The Merriam Webster dictionary definition:
  • The power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms
  • The store of things learned and retained from an organism's activity or experience as evidenced by modification of structure or behaviour or by recall and recognition

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Talking about memory entails talking about two processes: 
  1. Learning new information, skills or behaviour  
  2. Recalling or retrieving what has been learnt at a later stage
Another scientific theoretical model of memory is the Stage Model of Memory (proposed in 1968 by Atkinson and Shiffrin). It has three separate stages of memory: 

  1. sensory memory
  2. short-term (working) memory and 
  3. long-term memory

Sensory memory deals with sensory input from the immediate environment and is stored for only a maximum of 3-4 seconds. We are aware of only some aspects of it, which are then passed on to the short-term memory. Freudian psychology calls the short-term memory, the conscious mind. Content here is kept for only 20-30 seconds. If the content is processed and associations formed, it gets linked to long-term memory.

Why Are Memories Important For Us?

If we cannot remember anything about who or what we are, being who or what we are gets frightfully difficult. Imagine going about with no idea of how people would distinguish you from others. In addition to physical attributes like size, gender, looks, clothes we also have other distinguishing features about a person, most of which we should just remember. If you are a student, it is good to remember who is the teacher or the headmaster; if you work in an office, it is good to remember who is the big boss.

We just need to remember who the important people are, in our personal lives and socially. People may not always carry painted signs on their heads saying how and why they are important. People in customer service are occasionally reminded of this need to remember someone’s importance by an angry person shouting ”Don’t you know who I am?

A mature attitude to memory is the key to happiness. There is a crucial difference in attempts to erase memory and transcending it, through forgiveness and compassion.

Erasing or suppressing a painful memory does not bring relief from mental torment, but forgiveness does. Fortunately, we can work on our memories. Stop for a moment and think what you were worrying yourself to death a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, ten years ago. Was it really worth it?

If a man chooses to tie himself to past memories, he can hardly live life unfolding naturally and find satisfaction. 

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For him everything is conditioned by the memories that chase him constantly. A more exciting and fruitful prospect is to anchor oneself more in the hopes of the future. 

Cultural Memory

Maurice Halbwachs, the French philosopher who died in Buchenwald, claimed that memory, like language, is a social phenomenon as well as an individual one. Further, he argued that memory has a cultural dimension too.

The concept of cultural memory was introduced to the archeological discipline by Jan Assman (1988). He defines it as the outer dimension of human memory

There are two ingredients here, "memory culture" (Erinnerungskultur) and "reference to the past" (Vergangenheitsbezug). Memory culture is the mechanism used by a culture to ensure cultural continuity by using cultural mnemonics to preserve its cultural knowledge for later generations. Reference to the past is a historical consciousness, which reassures the members of a society of their collective identity and their uniqueness in space and time.

Test Your Memory

If you want to improve your memory, there are many wonderful techniques like chunking. Here are some sites to help you test and improve your memory.

Which animal has the best memory?  

Answer: No, it's not your mother-in-law or your spouse's ex. The older female elephant scores highest in memory and leadership tests
"Can anybody remember when the times were not hard and money not scarce?"  - Ralph Waldo Emerson
For further reading: 

  • Assmann, Jan (1988a) Kollektives Gedächtnis und kulturelle Identität. In: J.Assmann and T.Hölscher (eds) Kultur und Gedächtnis, pp. 9-19. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.  
  • Assmann, Jan (1992) Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen.München: Beck.Jonker, Gerdien (1995) The Topography of Remembrance. The Dead, Tradition and Collective Memory in Mesopotamia. Leiden etc.: Brill. 
  • Atkinson, R.C.; Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). "Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes". In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T.. The psychology of learning and motivation (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.
  • Halbwachs, Maurice, On collective memory, Chicago (IL), The University of Chicago Press, 1992