The Psychology of Remembering: A Memory Like a Journal

When we remember, what is it that we’re remembering? Do we try to recapture the appearance of a moment, like a photograph or a postcard that shows us a perfect still image of a point in time? Do we try to incorporate motion, a movie reel that we can fast-forward, pause, and rewind at will? Do we concentrate on the feeling and the emotion and let the more visual detail fade back into a secondary background? And whatever we do, how do we get there? Do we rely on a word, a phrase, a sound, a smell, an object? Or do we just say, now is the time to remember, and leave it at that?


Each memory is different

This was a weekend that was filled with memories, and I suspect that for no two people was the process of recollection, the experience of remembering the same. Nor, I think, were the memories that came forward, even for individuals who had been side by side. Because if we’ve learned anything over decades of research into the properties of memory, it’s this: memories are idiosyncratic, they change, and the way we stored them to begin with will affect the way we will remember them later on.

It’s comforting to think that our brain functions much like a camera: we see something, we take a picture, we develop it somewhere in the crevices of our mind, and we can take it out again whenever we want. Or, we can even press the video function and record however many minutes of action we see fit, and then store the media to peruse at a future time. And indeed, for a very, very select few individuals, that seems to be exactly how it works. These people are the super-remembers, who have a condition known as hyperthymesia, an ability to recall the most minute details from any day, on demand. But to date, only six people with the condition have been confirmed. For the rest of us, the picture is quite different.

Memory is like a journal: selective, incomplete, and subject to interpretation

I like to think of it as the analogy between a camera and a journal. Imagine you are walking along when you see something that captures your attention. It can be an object. It can be a person. It can be a scene. An expression on someone’s face. It can be anything at all, so long as you decide it is worthy of note and significant enough for you to want to remember it for the future. You reach for your camera, only to realize you don’t have one with you (and you’ve left your phone at home, too, so no built-in camera is handy). But you do have a pen and paper. So, you decide to write down what you’re seeing so that you’ll remember it for later, maybe to share with someone else, maybe for your own personal benefit.

What do you write down? What features do you think are important enough? What features do you think will be sufficient to trigger your memory and allow you to fill in the rest of the details later? Do you focus on why it captured your attention, or what it made you think of, or just the objective picture before you?

You put something down. Some time later, you revisit it. And perhaps later still, you visit it once more. Chances are, the features you chose to note that first moment, when you didn’t have a camera present, will grow to define the experience for you. Because they are used as memory triggers each time you go back to the scene, they will in time grow larger, more definitive, more important. And those features that you decided were not worth recording will fade in comparison. They may shift; they may grow indistinct; they may disappear altogether until you don’t remember they were there to begin with.

Whatever happens, the memory will change. The shift can be more or less perceptible, more or less important to the essence of the moment, but it will inevitably take place. And more likely than not, it will change in a way that echoes who you are: how you tend to experience the world and events around you, how you tend to fit everything into your own sense of self and perception, how you react to and interact with your environment. Because after all, weren’t those the factors that determined what it was you chose to write down in your journal to begin with?

A camera has a shot at relative objectivity (though as many, like Susan Sontag, would argue, even a camera can never be entirely objective). A journal lacks even that pretense at impartial rendering. It is, first of all, the creation of whoever wrote it, subject to what the author chose to put down—or encode, if we go back to the terms of memory—to begin with and to how he chose to do so: the mode, tone, and nature of the memory trace.

Our memory journals are rich and varied and full of meaning. They are central to our sense of self and to our sense of the world. But whatever they are, they are not and never will be (unless we are one of six) wholly objective or entirely stable. They are inherently ours and inherently flawed, in the sense of failing to have captured with complete accuracy whatever it is they were trying to memorialize. And that is something we should never forget.

If you'd like to receive information on new posts and other updates, follow Maria on Twitter @mkonnikova

[photo credit: Creative Commons, from JoelMontes flickr photostream]

Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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