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History and Memory Revisited Memory, History, and the Brain II: Whence Nostalgia and the Constraints


April Fool's Day, 2005. First Fool: Elliott Shore. Second Fool: Paul Grobstein. Third Fool: Paula Viterbo. ES. April Fool's Day. and. Nostalgia. ES ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: History and Memory Revisited Memory, History, and the Brain II: Whence Nostalgia and the Constraints

History and Memory RevisitedMemory, History, and
the Brain II Whence Nostalgia and the
Constraints on Stories?
  • Brown Bag Discussion
  • Bryn Mawr College
  • April Fools Day, 2005
  • First Fool Elliott Shore
  • Second Fool Paul Grobstein
  • Third Fool Paula Viterbo

  • April Fools Day
  • and
  • Nostalgia

What Paul and Elliott concluded in November
(Memory and the Brain I)
  • Re. memory
  • There is nothing in our brains or elsewhere in
    our bodies that contains complete memories of
    experiences (stories)
  • There are, however, traces (changes in the
    neurobiological system) that occur as a result of
  • What we call memories are re-creations, stories
    about past experiences, based on traces. A memory
    (story) is created anew each time one remembers.
    Memories are constructed in the present from past
  • Re. history
  • History is also a re-creation of the past in the
  • History is not a guide to the future because it
    is the current processing of past memories in
    ways that appear useful in the present

Leftover questions and pointers to possible
  • What are those traces in the brain? Can we
    understand psychological and cultural
    explanations in neurobiological terms?
  • Are there limits / constraints to the stories we
    tell ourselves about the past?
  • Are there time-independent memories (knowledge)?
    Individual vs. species memory
  • Three ways to think about constraints on stories
  • Neurological (Paul Paula)
  • Psychological (Azade)
  • Cultural (Kalala)

Neurobiological constraints the bipartite brain
the role of the neocortex
  • There is a part of the brain (upper brain,
    neocortex) that aspires to coherent stories,
    and it tries to fit new input (from the rest of
    the brain) into the coherent structures it has
    (hence a propensity, among humans,
    for nostalgia).  Its not, then, so much what
    sticks as what is (and is not) incorporated into
    stories that matters.
  • http//serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/mentalhealth

The Relation between Memory and History
  • Events
  • Brains

Traces in the brain (patterns of firing neurons)
Primary sources
Individual memory Neurobiology Psychology Cognitiv
e science
Collective memory Alternative histories Psychology
Sociology Anthropolgy Literature History
Official history History
Individual self-identity After playing and
replaying them, we become our memories
Collective identity Nationalisms
Complicating the model
  • Neither memory nor history are faithful replicas
    of the past, nor infallible guides to the
    present. BUT they are based on some kind of
    record of the past. Memories are incomplete and
    interpretive, processed in the brains lower
    module. Used by both the lower and upper
    brain, memory and history provide some kind of
    guide to the present. In other words, humans
  • Both memory and history are recreated from traces
    (neurological, historical sources). BUT traces
    need to be interpreted (by the brains upper
    module) in order to become explicit memories or
    histories. AND not all interpretations are

Complicating the model
  • Stories are constrained by the brains internal
    environment (neurological, genetic), as well as
    its external environment (cultural, social).
  • Like most historians, brains (or their upper
    modules) are contextualists (not extreme
    constructionists). And like a maligned minority
    of historians, they are presentists (they
    interpret the past in the light of the present).
  • BUT in the hands of contextualist historians (or
    their upper modules), history can be a guide to
    the future. Although some presentist biases are
    inevitable, historians are trained to interpret
    the past as much as possible in its own context.
    Comparative contextual analyses enables them to
    use (with limitations) the past as a guide to the

Whence nostalgia?
  • Psychological / cultural explanations
  • Inertia
  • Fear of change / loss
  • Mistrust of unknown future
  • The brains upper module values the coherence
    and stability of the stories it constructs
  • Symmetry between remembrance (nostalgia) and
    forgetfulness (painful and useless memories)
  • Neurobiological explanations
  • The brain works in the present, based on traces
    from the past. The brain constructs stories that
    transform the past into the present.
  • The brain does not care about the future.
  • Memories used over and over again are reinforced
    in the brain (neurological pathways genetic
  • Conservation of energy?
  • Evolutionary explanations
  • Is nostalgia adaptive? Does it conserve energy?
  • What makes memories stick? (genetic explanations)

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