December 6, 2008


Memory is one of my favorite subjects--especially in relation to meaning-making and history. In the past couple of days, the theme of memory has come up three something must be in the air.

First, I attended a lecture at SDSU by Dr. Alexandra Savauge, who is at the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California Sur (and at SDSU this week). She talked about the colonial past of museum displays, patterns of collection, and historical discourses, as well as new directions that museums are taking in the postcolonial era. At one point, she expressed her view that museums can be seen as three dimensional memory devices--as ways of remembering the past through objects. Museums, then, can be seen as large, culturally-constructed mnemonic devices that assist people in understanding their past. At the end of her lecture, she argued that many museums are now moving away from the colonial model, which was based on pushing a nationalist identity, and toward a very different model that includes alternative points of view and puts "thinking" ahead of nationalist discourses.

While driving back home from the ocean this afternoon, I heard a story about a man known only as "H.M." At the age of 27 he underwent surgery in an attempt to cease his chronic and life debilitating seizures. What happened was something completely unexpected, and tragic. While the seizures were abated by the surgery, in which a chunk of his brain was removed, H.M. also lost the ability to form new memories--the part of the brain that "consolidates" new memories into long-term memories had apparently been removed as well. H.M. lived for the next 50 years without the ability to remember anything for more than a few seconds. He was also heavily studied by scientists who learned a great deal about how memory works in the human brain. More of this story is here.

Finally, I just read the latest post over at Neuroanthropology, which is about another piece written by Vaughan Bell. Bell's article is about "grief hallucinations," or re-experiencing deceased people, or vividly remembering people after they have died. Bell's view of patient's experiences is that in some cases they are almost filling in the deceased person, somewhat like the way the brain will complete a blind spot. Bell calls this a hallucination, but I wonder where the line is between memory and hallucination. Is a hallucination just a very strong and visceral memory? What is the difference, really?

Memory can certainly be something that is seen as socially or culturally constructed, and museums are an example of a collective social memory device. Photographs, and photographic albums, serve a similar albeit more personal function (or sites like Flickr). But, like a good four-fielder, I can't dismiss the biological basis of memory and memory production. It is not something that is purely cultural or social, as the story of H.M. illustrates. As with pretty much everything else, memory is something that derives from a complex admixture of social construction and biological capacity.

1 comment:

improve your memory said...

well thanks for the heads up. I just love it.