History and Memory:
What Does the Mind/Brain/Nervous System Have to Do With It?
Working Notes for a Joint Paper?
Center for Science in Society Brown Bag Series
Elliott Shore and Paul Grobstein
October 26, 2004
The issues/problems ... as seen by an historian
History as ...
- Record of the past?
- Guide to the future?
Historians accused of
- Writing about past in guise of present
- Writing about themselves when describing past
Historians, humans in general, given to "nostalgia"?
"a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition"
From Don's talk
History has some kind of relation to human memory. Its worth examining that from the perspective of neurobiology/cognitive science to see whether it can shed useful light on meaning/issues/future directions of history.
- climatological prediction based on records of past?
- "New Orleans should always exist in the form it does now, because it was always there"
Relevant(?) pieces of neurobiology/cognitive science
- There is nothing to be found in our brains or anywhere else in our bodies that "contains" our memories. There is no equivilent of a hard drive, library, or filing cabinet.
- Experiences create diffuse changes in structure in multiple areas of the nervous system. These "traces" are NOT localized or complete memories of past events but do affect our behavior in ways that we are aware of as well as ways we are not.
- Memory (conscious recollection) is a reconstruction, the result of a process of creating a story that accounts for the traces.
- The human nervous system, like the nervous systems of other animals, functions in the present, by processing signals it receives in ways that reflect its current organization (partly reflecting traces from past events) in order to anticipate as sucessfully as possible future challenges.
- Neither memory nor history is or can be a faithful replica of the past.
- Memory and history are both re-creations from traces, and hence stories that are new each time they are created.
- Neither memory nor history can be regarded as infallible guides to the future since they are at best stories of what has been rather than what might be
- Humans are "nostalgic". We tend to recreate the past on the belief it is useful to the present. The occupational hazard is failure to recognize that "what always was" is always a story. Moreover it is a story that may or may not be relevant in an unpredictably different future.
- Neither memory nor history should be evaluated or criticized in terms of "faithfulness" or "accuracy" with regard to the past. They are most significant insofar as they provide useful springboards for present action and should evaluated in these terms.
Some useful references:
Comments, reactions, continuing conversation invited in the brown bag on-line forum
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