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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
April 1, 2005

Paul Grobstein (Biology), Elliott Shore (History),
Paula Viterbo (History of Science)

Memory, History, and the Brain II.
Whence Nostalgia and the Constraints on Stories?

Powerpoint Presentation

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


The first of the "three fools" presenting, Elliott Shore, reviewed for us the history of April Fool's Day. When the calendar was changed in the 16th century, New Year's Day was moved from the first of April to January. Those who hung on to the old day were "April fools." (An alternative story concerns "April Fish Day," after young, silly, stupid--that is, easy to catch--spawn.)

The "second fool," Paula, then reviewed the conclusions of our November '04 discussion of History, Memory and the Brain:

  • Regarding memory: Scientists have failed to "find in the human brain a hard disk with complete memory"; nothing in our brains (or elsewhere in our bodies) contains complete memories of experiences (stories). There are, however, traces (changes in the neurobiological system) that occur as a result of experiences; some traces are stronger, deeper and more lasting than others (due to context or repetition). What we call memories are re-creations in the present, stories based on traces of past experiences. A memory (story) is created anew each time one remembers.
  • Regarding history: History is also a re-creation of the past in the present. 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 answers: 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)? What is the relationship between individual and species memory?
Stepping off from these questions, Paul, Paula and Elliott went on to describe three ways we might think about constraints on stories: the neurological, the psychological, and the cultural.

Drawing on recent Notes for a New Story presented to the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia, Paul explained that the relevant neurobiological issues are two-fold. There is no single coherent record when "something happens," but rather, a large number of changes take place in different parts of the brain. How, then, does the bipartite brain "make a memory" out of those scattered marks? The persistence of memory, the inertia of stories, and the existence of nostalgia are perhaps most helpfully thought about, not in terms of what constitutes the traces themselves, but in terms of the rules of storytelling. (It is an open question how just how resistant to change or revisable those rules are.) Reference was made to Elizabeth Allen's recent (3/29/05) Faculty Research Talk on "The Ins and Outs of Cultural Transition," which focused particularly on the move from romanticism to realism. Distinguishing "transition out" from "transition in," and making the two processes logically distinct, Elizabeth was able to suggest that a cultural phase might die "of its own weight," from processes intrinsic to itself. In the void, nostalgia for what was arises.

Most of the brain's work is done by a lower module (which Paul called "the frog brain") that receives all direct sensory input. Drawing in turn on input (the "discordant hoard"/a "cacophony of voices") sent up from the lower module, the upper brain generates a single coherent story. "The frog brain remembers," but it is the "upper brain," or neocortex, which aspires to coherence. It tries to fit new input (from the lower module) into existing structures (hence a propensity, among humans, for nostalgia). What matters is not so much "what sticks" in the first place, as what is/is not incorporated into those stories.

Paula, who is interested in better understanding the "equivalence" or "correspondence" between traces in the brain (=patterns of neurons firing) and the stories we tell, then described the relationship between the making of memory and the making of history. She distinguished among three types:

  • individual memory (studied by neurobiologists and psychologists: after playing and replaying these memories, we "become" them; they constitute individual self-identity),
  • collective memory and alternative histories (represented in psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature and history),
  • official history (studied by historians, and the source of collective identity, nationalisms, etc.).
Paula "complicated the model," by saying that--although neither memory nor history are faithful replicas of the past, nor infallible guides to the present--they are based on some kind of record. Processed in the brain's lower module, memories are incomplete and interpretive, but humans can learn. Both memory and history are recreated from neurological and historical traces. Those traces need to be interpreted by the brain's upper module in order to become explicit memories or histories--and not all interpretations are possible. Stories are constrained by the brain's internal (neurological, genetic) as well as by its external (cultural, social) environment. Like most historians, brains (or their upper modules) are contextualists, rather than extreme constructionists. And like a maligned minority of historians, they are presentists: they interpret the past in the light of the present. Although some presentist biases are inevitable, in the hands (or the upper modules) of contextualist historians, who are trained to interpret the past as much as possible in its own context, comparative contextual analyses enable the use of the past as a guide to the future.

There is a "major fight" in history about whether "memory or history" comes first; most historians have "thrown away chronology as an organizing principle." There was discussion of mnemonic devices like The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, a description of memories as chemical changes encoded in or "written on" the body, a characterization of the brain as "a great hermeneutic tool," and of how the "neocortex is designed to be an interpreter." We also tried out a description of the process of psychoanalysis as "finding a story that works." We puzzled over what characteristics stories need, in order to have a healing effect (are they related to the storytelling rules?). Some traces probably cannot enter into story. Freud taught us that the problem of memory is the problem of representation: we are always trying to "make present what is not present." Might analysis be described as, in part, expanding the repertoire of stories and the rules for making them? Milan Kundera distinguished between memory and nostalgia, the latter being created only when there were no more memories, in order to fill the gap. There was some discussion of "false consciousness," of the conservativism of immigrants who long for what they have forgotten (and left behind), and of the ideological purposes to which "false memories" can be put. Mention was also made of a Scientific American article about teaching a slug to negotiate a maze, and then feeding its body to other slugs, which thereby acquire the same ability (?!?!?)

The presentation concluded with a number of explanations for nostalgia:

  • Psychological/cultural: inertia, fear of change and loss, mistrust of the unknown future, the value the brain's upper module places on the coherence and stability of the stories it constructs, the symmetry between remembrance and forgetfulness, between nostalgia and painful or useless memories
  • Neurobiological: the brain works in the present, based on traces from the past, constructing stories that transform the past into the present; the brain does not care about the future, but memories used over and over again are reinforced in the brain (via neurological pathways and genetic encoding)
  • Evolutionary: Is nostalgia adaptive? Does it conserve energy? What makes memories stick?
How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?
(With fear and trembling:) "CHANGE???!!!"

Further discussion of such questions is invited to continue in the on-line forum.

The semester's series will continue next Friday, April 8, when Scott Gilbert of the Swarthmore Biology Department will lead a discussion on "The Human Embryo and its Popular Audience: Fictions and Fetuses." Embryology is an intensely visual field, and it has provided the public with images of human embryos and fetuses. The responses to these images can be extremely powerful and personal, and the images (as well as our reactions to them) are conditioned by social and political agendas. The image of the "autonomous fetus" abstracts the fetus from the mother, the womb, and from all social contexts, thereby emphasizing "individuality." Another image, that of the double helix, has also become a cultural as well as scientific icon. The image of "sacred DNA" emphasizes DNA as the unmoved mover, the eidos, the soul of the human being. There is presently a convergence of these two symbols. Since fertilization involves the forming of a new constellation of DNA in the zygote, the act of fertilization is being perceived as the secular and technical equivalent of ensoulment. This privileges fertilization above the other possible scientifically valued times when "human life" begins.

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