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A "Common-Place Book"

Compiled and Collated by 

John F. Kihlstrom


For hundreds of years, people have maintained "common-place" books, similar to scrapbooks, in which they collected literary passages, quotations, ideas, and observations intended for personal reflection.  What follows, in this page and the pages linked to it, is a sort of common-place book devoted to the human ecology of memory.



From the French, literally, an aid to memory -- not so much a mnemonic device as a more specific retrieval cue.  But also a synonym for memorandum, which suggests that memos were originally intended to be incomplete, sketchy, serving as an aid to the writer's and reader's memory, suggesting that there is more to the memory than is represented in the memorandum.

See also Digitization as a Threat to Individual Memory, Library Digitization as a Threat to Collective Memory.



See also Depression, Menopause.


American Memory Project

A project of the Library of Congress, "American Memory provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. It is a digital record of American history and creativity. These materials, from the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, chronicle historical events, people, places, and ideas that continue to shape America, serving the public as a resource for education and lifelong learning" [from the American Memory website].  Link to the American Memory website, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/about/index.html.



Read "Anniversaries feed the forces of memory" (Jeremy Eichler, reviewing a concert celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Caramoor International Music Festival, New York Times, 06/27/05).



Like classical Greek art, much classical Roman art was devoted to portraiture and the depiction of mythological scenes.  But the art of Imperial Rome also departed from its Greek forebears by introducing a narrative tradition that commemorated various historical events -- in this way, contributing to the development of a collective memory among its citizens.  The narrative tradition in painting was revived by the Dutch artists of the 17th century, especially in their portrayals of domestic life, and by other artists in the 18th and 19th centuries.  

Painting, sculpture, and other fine arts can reflect memory in other ways, as well.  One of the most famous paintings of the surrealist Salvador Dali is entitled The Persistence of Memory (1931).  Some art is intended to depict the processes involved in memory and forgetting, much as Georges Seurat's pointillist A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886) represents the processes of color vision (the paint is mixed in the eye, not on the palette).  

Memory plays an especially important role in the shadowboxes and other constructions of the American surrealist artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1973).  Influenced by Victorian mementoes, Cornell created small specimen cabinets or memory theatres in which various objects were laid out inside a frame, and covered by glass.  As Robert Hughes writes in American Visions: the Epic History of Art in America (Knopf, 1997, p. 499), "To others these deposits might be refuse, but to Cornell they were the strata of repressed memory, a jumble of elements waiting to be grafted and mated to one another".  Commenting on the shadow boxes, the art dealer Allan Stone has written: "The thing that struck me most vividly about Cornell's boxes was that they reminded me a lot of his house.  There was a kind of timelessness about them; they seemed to be designed as reveries recalling things from long ago, which was very much like the feeling of the rooms in his house" ("A Maker of Tiny Worlds, A Dealer and an odd Meeting" by Rita Reif, New York Times, 10/27/02).  See Joseph Cornell by Kynaston McShine, catalog of a retrospective exhibition of the artist's work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1980-1981.

The contemporary American artist Robert Morris (b. 1931) makes explicit use of Bartlett's "method of serial reproduction" in his Memory Drawing series of 1963.  In this work, simply Morris writes out a text that he has committed to memory: over the five drawings of the series, the reproduction of the text becomes increasingly full of errors.  In another work, Short Splice ( also 1963), Morris recreates from memory a narrative consisting of the sequential instructions for finishing a length of rope.  Another work from 1963, Quotations, also concerns memory.  See Inability to Endure or Deny the World: Representation and Text in the Work of Robert Morris by Terrie Sultan, catalog of an exhibit of Morris's work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1990-1991.


The Audience and Collective Memory

Writing specifically of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and the loss of not simply gay artists but also of a gay audience for them, but making a more general point, Herbert Muschamp writes:  "An audience retains the memory of a performance.  What happens to that memory when the audience is gone.  Imagine the World Series without veteran sports fans.  You could still fill the stadium.  The crowd would still roar.  But a certain resonance would have vanished, the vibrations of a social instrument devised for the precise purpose of detecting a historically outstanding performance.  How could this instrument function without a database of past scores? ("The Secret History", New York Times, 01/08/06).


(Jane) Austen on Memory

Austen's Mansfield Park (1814) contains what my Berkeley colleague John Coolidge has called a "rhapsody on memory", in the words of the novel's heroine, Fanny Price (Chapter 22):

If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory.  There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences.  The memory is sometimes so attentive, so serviceable, so obedient -- at others, so bewildered and so weak -- and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond controul! -- We are to be sure a miracle every way -- but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out.

Blogs and Blogging

See Diary, Tweets, Weblogs.

Brian Williams's Memory

Brian Williams, longtime anchor for the NBC Nightly News, often told a story about how, while covering the Iraq War in 2003, his helicopter was struck by rocket-propelled grenade and made a forced landing.  In his newscast of January 30, 2015, he told the story again, this time on the air, during a tribute to a retiring veteran  who had also been part of the episode.  Unfortunately, Williams's story was not true.  It was another helicopter which had actually been hit, and Williams was in a trailing flight.  The ensuing controversy led to claims of inaccuracy in some of Williams's other news reports, particularly about Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where Williams had claimed that he had seen bodies floating down the street of New Orleans's Latin Quarter (which, in fact, was not seriously flooded).  In the aftermath, NBC suspended Williams for six months; Williams lost his reputation as the most trusted television newsman since Tom Brokaw, maybe even Walter Cronkite; and it was uncertain whether he would ever return to the anchor desk -- or, indeed, to journalism at all. 

It is unclear whether this was a case of simple self-aggrandizement; a case of stolen valor; a war story whose embellishment got out of hand, slipping from causal talk over drinks to late-night television and finally to the Nightly News itself; or whether it was, as Williams suggested, a false memory in which he "conflated" (his word) the two helicopters.   See, for example, "Anchors Aweigh" by Maureen Dowd, New York Times, 02/07/2015; "How Brian Williams's Iraq Story Changed" by David Carr, New York Times, 02/08/2015; "Was Brian Williams a Victim of False Memory?" by Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times, 02/09/2015.


Bridey Murphy

Link to documents pertaining to the Bridey Murphy case.

Business Cards as Memories

Even in this digital age, businessmen and women, and other professionals as well, continue to exchange business cards.  The columnist "Schumpeter", writing in the Economist ("On the Cards", 03/14/2015) suggests that part of the perennial appeal of business cards is that they "act as a physical reminder that you have actually met someone rather than just Googled them.  Rifling through piles of for frequently exchange business cards helps to summon up memories of meetings in ways that simply looking through uniform electronic lists never would."



UC Berkeley historian Thomas Laqueur has noted that cemeteries -- especially, but not just, "national" cemeteries like those at Gettysburg and Arlington in the United States, or municipal cemeteries like Pere-Lachaise and Montparnasse in Paris -- serve as "monumental memory gardens". "The graveyard -- be it for saints, soldiers, or kings -- emerged, as Lauer puts it, as 'the gold standard' for a place of national memory." (Source: "Grave Matters: Thomas Laqueur Studies the Role of Cemeteries in Civilization" by Frank Browning, California Monthly Fall 2012).



See Currency and Coins as Collective Memory; see also Stamps as Collective Memory.


Collective Memory

Link to the "Collective Memory: Definitions" page assembled by Harold Marcuse of UC Santa Barbara: http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/201/CollectiveMemoryDefinitions.htm.

Television Histories as Collective Memory, a course taught by Gary R. Edgerton of the Department of Communications at Old Dominion University, focuses on how American's learn about the past from movies and television ("Syllabus", Chronicle of Higher Education, (02/27/04).  With Peter C. Rollins, Edgerton has also edited Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age (2001).

Collective memory can unite a society, but it can also fragment it.  In In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (2017), David Reiff argues that, as in Bosnia, collective memory can foster hatred, and that memorials and monuments to the past are not necessarily good things.


Common-Place Books

For hundreds of years, people have created "common-place" books, in which they collected literary passages, quotations, ideas, and observations intended for personal reflection.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term first appeared in print in the 16th century. In 1709, the British philosopher John Locke posthumously published a New Method of Making Common-Place Books (sometimes included in editions of Locke's 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding).  The common-place book may be the forerunner of the modern scrap-book.  

See also:

Constitutions as Expressions of National Memory

Constitutions are more than documents that express the basic principles around which a state or other social group is organized, and by which conflicts within that group can be resolved.  They can also represent the collective memory of that group.  Cass Sunstein, a political scientist as the University of Chicago, argues that the best constitutions are "countercultural", in that they identify and fix the major problems facing the emerging group.  "The Americans were very alert to this.  The Bill of Rights is just partly a set of recollections of what went wrong under the British" ("Constitutionally, a Risky Business" by Felicia R. Lee, New York Times, 05/31/03).  (To some extent, the original perceptions of these wrongs is enshrined in another document, the Declaration of Independence, with its list of grievances against the King.)  Sunstein went on to note that constitutions have to achieve a balance between (in Lee's words), "aspirations driven by recollections of oppression and things that can be enforced by law".  

In addition to the American Bill of Rights, Lee offers other examples of constitutionally enshrined national memory:

The reference here, of course, is to the 1994 neighbor-on-neighbor genocide of the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority (and Hutus who sympathized with the Tutsis). Every year, Rwanda commemorates the episode in a week of mourning, climaxing in a ceremony, at a large soccer stadium, in which the modern history of Rwanda, from the British colonialism through the genocide (and ineffectual United Nations intervention) to its resolution in the defeat of Hutu Power by Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front.  Philip Gourevich, writing in the New Yorker, asks "Is it really healing to keep reopening a wound? ("Remembering in Rwanda", 04/21/2014).
A lot of Rwandans will tell you that all through mourning week they are prone to bad and bitter feelings.  For those who were there in 1994, during the genocide, memory can feel like an affliction, and the greater imperatie has often been to learn how to forget enough for long enough to live in the present for the rest of the year.  And for those who were not yet born -- more than half the country today -- what does it mean to be told to remember?  Many Rwandan schools have yet to teach the history of the genocide....  So there is memory that we manage, and there is memory that manages us.  At the stadium, you had both, and, at times, two decades of aftermath felt equal to the moment between two heartbeats.


Contested Memories

Informal observation suggests that many marital disputes, and other disputes between friends and lovers, and for that matter between co-workers, and between faculty and students, are disputes about memory -- individuals' recollections of who did, or said, what, when.

At the societal level, many intergroup disputes are also about memory -- but collective rather than individual memory -- each group has its own collective representation of the past, a subjective history that lies at the root of its identity and serves as a field of engagement with other groups, who have different representations of the same history.

There have been many such battles.  In the United States, perhaps the most contested memories have been over slavery.  The story is told in detail by David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, and summarized by Eric Foner in "the Civil War in 'Postracial' America" (The Nation, 10/10/2011). 


Of course, the Civil War was really fought over slavery.  The Confederacy broke away from the Union precisely to protect the "peculiar institution", and the Union would not have been threatened if slavery had not existed in the South.  Foner notes that when Ulysses S. Grant, the general most responsible for winning the Civil War, toured Europe after his retirement from the presidency, Otto von Bismarck -- the founding chancellor of an only recently united Germany, congratulated him on his success in preserving the American union, Grant corrected him: he had fought "not only to save the Union, but destroy slavery... a stain to the Union".  

But that's not necessarily how Americans remember it.  The historical past, like the personal past, is filtered through belief, emotion, and motivation, so that the remembered past may depart from the historical record. And how people remember the past may be as important a feature of group membership as any other.

Reviewing Jill Lapore's book, the Whites of Their Eyes The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History, Gordon Wood meditated on on the relation between history and memory  -- critical history attempts to establish the facts of the matter, which may well be different from how those facts are represented in individual and collective memory ("No Thanks for the Memories", New York Review of Books, 01/13/2011).  Wood quoted from Bernard Bailyn's comments on the new, quantitative history of the Atlantic slave trade ("Considering the Slave Trade: History and Memory", William & Mary Quarterly, 58(1), 245-252):

Critical history-writing is all head and no heart. Scientific history-writing, Bailyn writes, is always skeptical and problematic; it questions itself constantly and keeps its distance from the past it is trying to recover. By contrast, memory’s

relation to the past is an embrace. It is not a critical, skeptical reconstruction of what happened. It is the spontaneous, unquestioned experience of the past. It is absolute, not tentative or distant, and it is expressed in signs and signals, symbols, images, and mnemonic clues of all sorts. It shapes our awareness whether we know it or not, and it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual.

Bailyn made these remarks about history and memory at the conclusion of a 1998 conference on the Atlantic slave trade that had threatened to break apart, as many black scholars and others present emotionally reacted to the presentation of the cold and statistically grounded scholarly papers dealing with the slave trade. With his distinction between history and memory, Bailyn calmed the passions of the conference. He confirmed that the dataset of the Du Bois Institute at Harvard laying out the statistics of the slave trade over three centuries would be "a permanent source for the future enrichment of our critical, contextual understanding" of the Atlantic slave trade. "But the memory of the slave trade," he said,

is not distant; it cannot be reduced to an alien context; and it is not a critical, rational reconstruction. It is for us, in this society, a living and immediate, if vicarious, experience. It is buried in our consciousness and shapes our view of the world. Its sites, its symbols, its clues lie all about us.

See also:


Corridos are, simply, ballads, but they play an extremely important role in Mexican and mexican-American collective memory.  According to Guillermo E. Hernandez, "These tales present the unofficial history of communities and their heroes, celebrating courage and creativity in the face of injustice, oppression, or danger" ("Ballads Without Borders" by Donovan Webster, Smithsonian magazine, 06/02).  

The Smithsonian Institution has organized a traveling exhibition on the corrido tradition, Corridos sin Fronteras [Ballads Without Borders]: A New World Ballad Tradition.  Link to the exhibition page at the Smithsonian Institution website.  Link to the exhibition website (requires Flash plug-in).  

Link to another page on corridos, with translations, from the "Music of the Southwest" website at the University of Arizona.


Currency and Coins as Collective Memory

A nation's collective memory is preserved in the currency and coins issued by its government, and used every day by its citizens.  Stamps, too, but that's another topic.

In 2004, the Smithsonian Institution closed its Hall of Money and Medals.  Lamenting this turn of events, Paul Richard wrote that "Five hundred years ago... humanist historians were as jealously possessive of their medals and their coins as they were of their libraries.... Coins were accessible.  And securely datable....  Compared with ancient books, coins were reassuring.  Books were iffy, they might be full of fictions.  But coins were sold and substantial.  They proved the past had happened... ("Losing Change: The Smithsonian is taking the Nation's Coin Collection Out of Circulation", Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 06/14-20/04).

Read "Conversion to the Euro: A Loss of Collective Memory?", an essay prepared on the occasion of the conversion of 12 European currencies to a common currency, the euro, on January 1, 2002.


Damnatio Memoriae




See also Aging, Menopause.


Descansos (Roadside Crosses)

In regions such as Arizona and New Mexico, where there is a strong presence of Mexican and Mexican-American culture, it is common to see wooden crosses, known as descansos (Spanish for "resting place"), along the roadside (you can also find them in California and even Wisconsin).  These crosses, typically white and adorned with artificial flowers, typically mark the location of a road accident in which someone died. The descanso is an invitation for passersby to stop, reflect on the transitory nature of human existence, and pray for the soul of the person who died on that spot.  For the family and friends of the victim, the roadside cross is a place of remembrance, enabling the living to continue a relation to the dead.

An exhibit of photographs of descansos in Arizona by Gordon Simmons, Roadside Crosses: Crossroads of Two Worlds, was presented in the gallery of Tohono Chul Park, in Tucson, Arizona, 04/05-00 - 05/29/00.  In the brochure accompanying the exhibit, Simmons wrote "these crosses mark the spot where someone has died, often a sudden and violent death, at a time and place not of their own choosing".  James S. Griffith, a folklorist at the University of Arizona, notes that descansos serve as a "signal for passersby that at this spot a soul suddenly left its body without the benefit of the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church".

The tradition of roadside crosses is discussed by Griffith in his Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta (University of Arizona Press, 1992).  The quote in the paragraph above is from that book, p. 100).  Although descansos are typically erected by family and friends of the deceased, Griffith notes that, for many years, roadside crosses were actually erected by the Arizona Highway Department to mark the sites of fatal accidents.  See also Griffith's Southern Arizona Folk Arts (University of Arizona Press, 1988), where he also discusses the related tradition of nichos (niches), memorials made from cement, bricks, or stones. 

For further information, see Roadside Crosses in Contemporary Memorial Culture by Holly Everett (Texas A&M University Press, 2002).

Link to a video program on the roadside crosses of Sonora and other regions of Mexico by James S. ("Big Jim") Griffith of the University of Arizona (requires Real Player).

Link to photographs of roadside memorials by Don Baccus.

Link to the Roadside Crosses of New Mexico Oral History Project, 1992-1996 at the University of New Mexico.  "This oral-history collection documents the reflections and meanings given to roadside crosses, or "descansos" in New Mexico.  the interviews within the collection give an abundance of information on traditions, customs, and beliefs in regards to the death of a loved one" (from the UNM Collection Summary abstract).

Link to Reverence of the Descanso, with photographs, by Anna Marie Panlilio.

Link to photographs of roadside memorials by Jerry Whiting, who notes that the creation of descansos and other roadside memorials is encouraged by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

See also Offrendas, R.I.P. Shirts.


Diary and Diaries

Autobiographies, like biographies, ought to be faithful, and even based on, the historical documentary record.  Memoirs, by contrast, can contain historical errors, because memory is fallible; but, at least, memoirs should be faithful to the author's memory -- which is why such a fuss occurs when memoirs prove to have been fabricated.  Often, when we ask questions about the accuracy of autobiographical memory, we can resort to the individual's diary or journal for an "online" record of what happened on a particular day.  

But, of course, that assumes that the diary is accurate as well.  And there are reasons to think that diaries, too, can distort the historical record -- even though they're nominally intended to be an accurate record of the writer's thoughts, feelings, and actions.  This is clear in The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives, an exhibit of diaries at the Morgan Library and Museum, in New York City, curated by Christine Nelson.  The exhibit presented a number of examples, from the Confessions of St. Augustine and Rousseau to the diary of John Newton, the English slavetrader whose conversion to abolitionism inspired him to write the hymn "Amazing Grace" (he also wrote "Glorious things of Thee Are Spoken"), to notes scribbled on a memo pad by a police officer at Ground Zero on 9/11 - -with lots of authors and historical figures inbetween.  Reviewing the exhibit, Edward Rothstein noted that "Our own era, of course, has turned spontaneous journalizing into something of a fetish...", but that "the contemporary mix of self-invention, self-promotion and self-revelation is probably not that different from what is on display here".  At the same time, "many diaries on display are almost painful in their confrontations with the recalcitrant reality of their authors' lives and characters.".  He characterizes the diary not as an on-the-spot record of what happened, but rather as a written representation of "the well-shaped self" ("Tales of Lives Richly Lived, But True?", New York Times, 01/22/2011).


See also Facebook, Tweets, Weblogs (blogs).


Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead)

In Meso-American culture, the period from October 31 (Halloween) through November 1 (All Saints  Day) to November 2 (All Souls Day, or Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead) is marked by a uniquely colorful religious festival that celebrates the cycle of life by simultaneously honoring ancestors (by redecorating gravesites in cemeteries) and mocking death (with toy skeletons and candy skulls).  The Day of the Dead has its origins in the ancient civilizations that preceded the Spanish Conquest and the arrival of Christianity. The families of the deceased often construct ofrendas, or offerings, in their homes or the cemetery.  Typically decorated with artificial flowers, they also contain photographs of the departed loved one, personal items, and holiday foods (such as pan de muerto, or Day of the Dead bread).  Like the memory tables offered by North American funeral parlors, they are opportunities to reminisce about the departed person.  

Link to a page on the Day of the Dead.

Link to a website selling books and videos concerning the Day of the Dead.

Each year the Oakland Museum of California hosts a celebration of the Day of the Dead, featuring a wide variety of offrendas and other installations honoring the dead, both Mesoamerican and worldwide.  Information: www.museumca.org.


Digitization as a Threat  to Individual Memory

An April 2008 press release from IBM predicted that "Forgetting will become a distant memory" with the development of "smart appliances" equipped with microphones, digital cameras, and large-capacity storage devices to record, store, and retrieve "all the details of everyday life".  This would seem to be one step toward the "great singularity" between man and machine predicted by Raymond Kurzweil (2005).  Maybe, with the increasing capacity of "smartphones", we've taken a step toward that step, raising the question of whether the day will come that we will have no need of memory at all -- because all of our experiences, thoughts, and actions will be available digitally.  

Carina Chocano writes about the problems of digitization as a substitute for memory  in "The Essence of Being Human is Not Remembering but Forgetting" (New York Times Magazine, 01/29/2012).

This is the dilemma of being a cyborg: It’s not just that everything we once committed to memory we now store externally on devices that crash or become obsolete or are rendered temporarily inaccessible due to lack of coverage. And it’s not that we spend a lot of time storing, organizing, pruning and maintaining our access to it all. It’s that we’re collectively engaged in a mass conversion of what we used to call, variously, records, accounts, entries, archives, registers, collections, keepsakes, catalogs, testimonies and memories into, simply, data.


For everything that’s gained by our ability to store and maintain more information than ever before, something is lost that has to do with texture, context and association. The science journalist Joshua Foer, author of "Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything," said in a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts that people once "invested in their memories, they cultivated them. They studiously furnished their minds. They remembered. Today, of course, we’ve got books and computers and smartphones to hold our memories for us. We’ve outsourced our memories to external devices. The result is that we no longer trust our memories. We see every small, forgotten thing as evidence that they’re failing us altogether." As we store more and more of what makes us us outside of ourselves, he said, "we’ve forgotten how to remember."

When asked by his interviewer if memory isn’t also a form of baggage, a conduit for suffering or a handicap, Foer responded with two stories. The first is about a man who lost his memory and his ability to form new memories, which made him less human in a way, because "to be a person you have to exist in the dimension of time." The second story is about a man who could remember everything but had no way of filtering the information. Foer likened this man to a character in a Borges story that concluded that the "essence of being human is not remembering but forgetting."

See also Aide-Memoire, Library Digitization as a Threat to Collective Memory.


Ethics of Memory

Memory Boosting, Memory Suppression  The President's Council on Bioethics, charged with making recommendations on such matters as reproductive cloning and stem-cell research, has also considered ethical implications of the pharmaceutical revolution as it relates to memory: Should we develop drugs that would enhance memory in normal individuals?  Should we develop drugs that can eliminate unwanted memories, such as trauma?  Link to papers and transcripts from the Council's 2002 and 2003 sessions on memory:


Eyewitness Memory

Eyewitness testimony, based on eyewitness memory, has long been a problem both for applied psychologists, law-enforcement officers, officers of the court, judges, and juries.  The large literature of laboratory and field studies on eyewitness memory is summarized in two landmark volumes:
The Handbook of Eyewitness Psychology.  Vol. I: Memory for Events, ed. by M.P. Toglia, J.D. Read, D.F. Ross, & R.C. L. Lindsay.  Erlbaum, 2006. 

The Handbook of Eyewitness Psychology: Vol. II: Memory for People ed. by R.C. L. Lindsay, D.F. Ross, J.D. Read, & M.P. Toglia.  Erlbaum, 2006.


Facebook (and MySpace)

See also Diary, Tweets, Weblogs.


False Memories

Some widely shared memories that are, objectively, false.



Fear of Forgetting

Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a dementing illness, but it hits memory first.  In an Op-Ed piece published in the New York Times (05/23/2011), Margaret Morganroth Gulette, argued that our fear of memory loss, which brings some individuals who receive a diagnosis of AD (or who diagnose the symptoms in themselves) to talk of suicide, borders on the irrational.  Partly, she argues, our fear of AD leads us (and physicians, and pharmaceutical companies) to magnify the seriousness of the small incidents of forgetting that naturally accompany normal aging.  She also argues that the horror of memory loss, itself, has been greatly exaggerated, and endorses the slogan (which she borrows from Anne Basting): 'Forget memory.  Try imagination."

People with cognitive impairments can live happily with their families for a log time.  My mother was troubled by her loss of memories, but she discovered an upside to forgetting.  She had forgotten old rancors....  The mind is capacious.  Much mental and emotional ability can survive mere memory loss, as do other qualities that make us human.  


Flashbulb Memories

WTCNewYorkTimes.jpg (42365 bytes)The events of September 11 renewed interest in the phenomenon of flashbulb memories. In a classic paper, Brown and Kulik (1977) defined the flashbulb memory as an vividly detailed memory of the circumstances under which one first learned of a surprising, consequential, emotionally involving event. People of a particular age often have flashbulb memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or of Martin Luther King, or of Robert F. Kennedy. Other flashbulb memories that have been studied include the Challenger Disaster of 1986 and the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. And there have been several studies in progress of flashbulb memories for the World Trade Center attacks.

Formal Research on flashbulb memories began with that classic 1977 paper by Brown and Kulik, but was anticipated, in a sense, by an unpublished study -- or, better put, the beginnings of an unpublished study) by Leon Kassman, then a graduate student at NYU.  When President Kennedy was shot, Kassman distributed 950 copies of a questionnaire, which he distributed to NYU students as well as individuals selected at random from the New York City and Dallas telephone booths.  Among other questions, the instrument asked people to describe where they were, who they were with, what they did, and how they felt when they heard that the President had been shot.  Kass man collected about 300 returned questionnaires, and lost most of these, but about 100 have been preserved.  It would be interesting to know what the respondents' memories of the event are like now.  For an account of Kassman's archive, see "Time Stopped" by Ian Parker, New Yorker, 11/24/2013. 

It was not until the Challenger Disaster of 1986 that investigators thought to collect information about significant events "online", as it were, to be compared with people's subsequent memories.  The general result of these studies is that flashbulb memories are not necessarily accurate representations of what actually happened at the time.  But that fact does not necessarily diminish their flashbulb quality.

Click here for a study of people's flashbulb memories for the Challenger Disaster of 1986.

In a survey released on September 5, 2002, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that 97% of Americans "can remember exactly where they were or what they were doing the moment they heard about the attacks" -- thus fulfilling the primary criterion of a flashbulb memory.  Perhaps just as important, 38% of those surveyed cited the 9/11 attacks as "the biggest life event of the past year".  Such events are typically idiosyncratic life changes such as births, deaths, marriages, or divorces, health problems, or events having to do with work or school.  The fact that so many people cited 9/11 as an event in their personal lives is consistent with Ulric Neisser's suggestion that flashbulb memories are benchmarks where personal and public histories intersect.

We often think of flashbulb memories as memories for momentous public events, but a little introspection reveals that we also have flashbulb memories for private, personal events.  The November 2006 issue of the AARP Magazine (yes, I'm a member!) listed "Five Dates to Remember" (p. 87), broken down into three categories, including personal landmark moments, some of which have real potential for flashbulb memories.

Historical Dates You'll think of this... But this is the one that counts...
Battle of Hastings, 1066 Your first kiss The day you knew you'd met the most important person in your life.
Spanish Armada, 1588 Your first presidential scandal The day you realized you helped put the guy into office.
Declaration of Independence, 1776 Your favorite old-time TV show The day it was interrupted by a world-changing event.
? Your biggest regret The day you learned to forgive yourself for it.
? Your first broken bone The first time you realized you weren't immortal after all.



A genealogy, of family tree tracing one's ancestors and other relatives, is a representation of a family's history and heritage.  As such, it comprises part of the collective memory of a family.  Genealogical information is often collected in interviews, and thus relies on the memories of family members; but sharing a genealogy with others can also be a stimulus for the recollection events within a family, and the sharing of these memories deepens the collective memory of the family still further. 

The National Genealogical Society has published a number of guidebooks for developing genealogies and other kinds of family histories (published by Rutledge Hill Press, a division of Thomas Nelson):


Ghost Brands

Ghost brands, also known as dead brands, orphan brands, or zombie brands, are brand names that have disappeared from market shelves -- like Brim coffee or Eagles snacks.  But those same brands have not always disappeared from memory (a large portion of survey respondents remembered the slogan, "Fill it to the rim -- with Brim!".  A recent article in the New York Times Magazine ("Can a Dead Brand Live Again?" by Rob Walker, 05/18/08)discussed a Chicago firm, River West, which is capitalizing on "brand memory" to revive certain brands in the marketplace.  Thus, Brim might become the brand name of a new coffee, giving the new product an instant boost in name-recognition -- and, thus, of sales as well.


History & Memory (Journal)

This academic journal, published twice a year, focuses on images of the past in collective memory and written history, with a special interest on representations of the Nazi era and the Holocaust, and their effects on contemporary imagination.  

Link to the H&M homepage.   


Historical Memory and Amnesia

Tony Judt's history of post-war Europe, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), contains an epilogue on "memory", and includes a Soviet-era joke about a call-in program on "Armenian Radio" (quoted by Anthony Gottlieb in "Picking Up the Pieces", New York Times Book Review, 10/16/05):

"Is it possible, an eager caller asks, to foretell the future? "Yes", comes the weary answer.  "No problem. We know exactly what the future will be.  Our problem is with the past: that keeps changing."

The themes of remembering, amnesia, reconstruction, and recovered memory, which lend such drama (not to mention controversy) to individual memoirs, also find themselves expressed at the social level, in various aspects of national memory.

See also The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe ed. by R.N. Lebow, W. Kansteiner, & C. Fogu.  Duke university Press, 2006.

Collective memory can unite a society, but it can also fragment it.  In In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (2017), David Reiff argues that, as in Bosnia, collective memory can foster hatred, and that memorials and monuments to the past are not necessarily good things.


Japan and World War II

Even 50 years later, Japan continues to be criticized, especially by China, Korea, and other Asian countries, for its continuing attempt to whitewash its militaristic, imperialistic past, including war crimes in World War II.  In 2005, for example, the Japanese Education Ministry approved a new series of textbooks that remove "self-deprecating" discussions of Japan's past, and present Japan's activities in World War II benignly as an effort to save all of Asia from Western domination.


Germans as Victims in World War II

Similarly, the movement among Jews and others to remember the Nazi Holocaust has found a parallel, among Germans of the post-war generations, to remember the suffering and losses that Germans themselves suffered during World War II.  A case in point is On the Natural History of Desstruction by W.G. Sebald, which was originally published in Germany (1999) as The Air War and Literature.  In his book, Sebald (who was born in 1944) asks why such experiences as the firebombing of Dresden and other German cities is not more fully represented in post-war German literature.  Mark Anderson writes of this newly emerging literature of national memory ("Crime and Punishment", The Nation, 10/17/05):

[F]or much of the postwar period... Germans grumbled mightily among themselves, but any public airing of their grievances was subject to severe constraints and cold war manipulation.  And when the German children born during or shortly after the war came of age in the heady years of the late 1960s, they demanded that Germany view the war through the lens of non-German victims, not that of its own losses.  German victimhood became politically incorrect.

But the dead return; unacknowledged suffering claims its due. That seems to be the lesson of the German war memories that have washed over the new Berlin Republic in the past few years....  Interestingly, most of these reflections do not come from conservatives... but from former New Leftists who reshaped the politics of German memory in the late 1960s and early '70s and adamantly opposed... attempts... to compare Hitler's crimes to Stalin's purges and other instances of mass slaughter.

This reversal in the politics of German memory has alarmed many observers, who worry that Germany's current fascination with its own victimhood signals a desire to let the specificity of Nazi crimes fade into a historical continuum of other war crimes.  In fact, the recent interest in German suffering represents an extension of Holocaust memory, not its demise....  Precisely because German recognition of the Holocaust is no longer in doubt, a new generation of Germans has come to understand the war in less ideological, less Manichean terms.  

Of Sebald's book, Anderson writes:

On the one hand he denounces the Germans for repressing the memory of their own suffering, while on the other he insists on the traumatized victims' "inviolable right" to remain silent.  

Writing of another book in this genre, Uwe Timm's In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS, Anderson explicitly turns to the metaphor of recovered memory:

These are the tactile memories of childhood, more Kafkaesque than Proustian, that lie beneath the generational conflict that has etched itself so forcefully into postwar German history.  It has taken a long time for the "good Germans" of 1968 to recover them, and to acknowledge the depth of their own familial connection to the horrors of the war.  The fact that German memory is now focused on the dead of Dresden and Hamburg, and the raped women of Berlin, won't neutralize Holocaust memory....  The real question is whether the victors of World War II will be willing to examine the historical simplifications that have long provided a consensus about the "good war". If the recent resurgence of war memories in the new Berlin republic has anything to tell us, surely a crucial element is the importance of individual historical experience that resists the either/or logic of victimhood. 



Although it has a history long enough for it to be known as the "Battlefield of Europe", the modern state of Belgium was created only in the 19th century. The Congress of Vienna (1814) created, including Belgium and Luxembourg; following a revolution in 1830, both Belgium and Luxembourg split from The Netherlands. However, Belgium itself is composed of two quite different territories, Flanders and Wallonia, which differ from each other in terms of language, culture, and socioeconomic factors (interestingly, French-speacking Brussels, the capital, is locatd in Duth-specking Flanders). It turns out that Flemish and Walloon Belgians also have quite different national memories. The causes and effects of these differences in collective memory were explored in a series of papers by Olivier Luminet and his colleagues, and published in Memory Studies in 2011 (Vol. 5, No. 1).


Beginning in 1975, and lasting until an amnesty was established in 1991, Lebanon suffered a bloody civil war involving Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Maronite Christians, Syria, Israel, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.  Beit Beirut (The House of Beirut), a "memory museum" focusing on everyday life in the city, opened in 2017, but the various parties can't agree on what to put in it ("Empty Halls and Empty Spaces", The Economist, 08/12/2017).  The repurposed "Barakat"  apartment building in which the museum is housed served as a sniper's nest during the war, and still shows extensive signs of war-related damage.  The museum itself has no director or board, no staff, and no permanent collection, and nobody seems to be able to agree on what should be displayed there.  That seems like some sort of metaphor.  

The Spanish Civil War

After the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, and the restoration of democracy under King Juan Carlos, a "memory war" erupted in Spain, reflecting a social "pact of silence" concerning Franco's fascist dictatorship (which began in 1936), his relationships with Hitler and Mussolini, and especially the Civil War itself, should be remembered.  Of course, there is a huge civil War memorial outside Madrid, in the "Valley of the Fallen" (Valle de los Caidos), which contains Franco's own burial crypt.  But the Valley of the Fallen is a memorial specifically to the Nationalist dead of the Civil War, and essentially ignores those who fell on the Republican side.

Franco's Crypt: Spanish culture and Memory Since 1936 (2013), by Jeremy Treglown, bucks conventional history by casting doubt on the "pact of silence" itself, and claims that the transition period from dictatorship to democracy was characterized by a vigorous debate concerning all things Franco.  Treglown has two agendas.  First, he tries to make the case that Spanish culture was not stifled during the Franco years (when, for example, artists like Picasso lived in exile).  Second, he examines the fate of Spanish collective memory for the Franco era.  He contrasts the pacto de olvido ("pact of forgetting" characteristic of the immediate post-Franco years (the dictator died in 1975) with the "Law of Historical Memory" instituted in 2004 by the Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (whose grandfather had fought on the Republican side against Franco).  This is a genuine "memory war" -- if a nonviolent one.  He writes "In trying to identify what's special about Spain, I soon found tht much of it is related to a politically manipulated, culturally ammnesiac obsession with 'memory'". From a review of Franco's Crypt by Jonathan Blitzer ("Memory Politics", The Nation, 01/20/2014):

On one side is a movement calling for redoubled scrutiny of the past.  At its head are descendents of the civil war dead, coupled with activists and anthropologists who together have crisscrosed th coutnry looking for answers to the crimes and trocities committed by Franco and his forces....  At the other end of the political spectrum is the renewed recalcitrance of Spanish conservatives, who see the activists' fact-finding as a kind of open-ended prosecution.  To them, the quest to restore "historical memory" is partisan and opportunistic -- a headlong rush to blame -- or, worse yet, a threat to the social order.

The Pieds Noirs

Literally "Black Feet", these were Europeans who emigrated to Algeria during the French colonial period, working as farmers and laborers.  After the Algerian revolution in 1962, many fled to France (where some of them now prefer to be called "French Algerians"), some were killed by Algerian nationalists, and others disappeared. Michael Kimmelman notes that the French colonial experience in Algeria is similar to its Vichy period, or Spain's civil war -- a period that most French would rather forget ("In France, a War of Memories Over Memories of War", New York Times, 03/05/2009).  But a number of museums concerned with the pieds noirs have opened in France, sparking Algerian threats of an economic boycott, and a Center for the French Presence in Algeria, documenting the Pied noir experience, both in Algeria and afterwards, is scheduled to open in 2009 or 2010 in a former convent in Perpignan, France.  

"Polish" Death Camps

Another contested history concerns Nazi death camps located in Poland in World War II. As part of the mechanism of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany located a number of such camps in Poland. In 2012, President Obama inadvertently referred to these as "Polish" death camps, by which he clearly meant death camps located in Poland -- he was, after all, speaking while awarding a posthumous Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, who risked his life to inform the Allies about those camps and other war crimes being committed on Polish soil. Nevertheless, the Polish government protested Obama's use of the phrase, revealing an internal tension about the relations among the Nazis, gentile Poles, and Polish and non-Polish Jews during the war -- a tension founded on differences in historical memory. For an analysis, see "the Noble and the Base" by John Connelly, reviewing a number of books on the topic, in the Nation, 12/03/2012.


Russia and the Soviet Union

Anne Applebaum, reviewing The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov (edited by J. Rubenstein and A. Gribanov; Yale, 2005), writes of Russian memories of the Soviet era (New York Review of Books,10/20/05):

Since becoming president of Russia, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to mold Russian memories of the Soviet Union into something more positive, or anyway more nostalgic, than they had been under his predecessor.  His goal, it seems, is to make Russians proud of their country again, to find heroes they can once again worship.  Toward this end, he and the bureaucrats who work for him have altered textbooks, closed archives, and brought back Soviet symbols, including the old national anthem.  In May 2005, on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Putin even presided over an open celebration of Soviet imperialism, complete with Soviet flags, tanks, and presidential justifications of the postwar occupation of the Baltic states.

Over time, this change in tone, a radical shift from that of the late 1980s, could have serious consequences for Russian civil society.  With no memory of the arbitrariness of the Soviet legal system, for example, Russians may feel less committed to the rule of law.  Without reminders of the behavior of Soviet police in the past, they may find it easier to accept a heavier-handed police state in the present.  Without knowing any history of the terror and hardship imposed by the Soviet empire, they may support new attempts to dominate their neighbors.  Worst of all, though, by robbing Russians of a clear understanding of their history, President Putin has deprived his countrymen of their rightful heroes [e.g., Sakharov], refusing to teach them about the men and women of whom they could legitimately be proud.


China and Tiananmen Square

In the spring of 1989, peaceful pro-democracy protests broke out in China, culminating in a massive occupation of Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing, within a stone's throw (!) of the Great Hall of the People and the tomb of Mao Tse-Tung.  The protest was vigorously suppressed by the People's Liberation Army on the night of June 3-4, 1989, complete with live ammunition and columns of tanks.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters were killed, and the leaders -- as well as officials who were sympathetic to the protesters -- were arrested, jailed, purged, and exiled.  Ever since then, in a truly Orwellian effort, the Chinese government has tried to expunge Tiananmen Square from collective memory.  The episode is not mentioned in official histories; security at the Square itself is intensified around the anniversary of the event, internet searches for related information are blocked -- so much so that, according to an article in The Economist ("Ageing Rebels, Bitter Victims", 05/31/2014)China's internet censors even attempted to block online references to the Shanghai Stock Exchange when it fell 64.89 points (6-4-89, get it?).  In 2014, the 25th anniversary of the event, Louisa Lim, a correspondent for National Public Radio, published the fullest account to date of both the "massacre" and the suppression that followed: The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.  In an informal experiment, Lim found that only 15 out of 100 Beijing University students could (or perhaps, under the circumstances, would) correctly identify the iconic "Man and Tanks" photograph from that day.

Turkey: Identity and Memory

Turkey is a modern nation-state, but it also includes a number of distinct ethnic subgroups -- not the least of whom are the Kurds that populate its border with Iraq. This situation creates a number of interesting dilemmas having to do with inter-ethnic tolerance and strife -- reflecting the pressure to subordinate one's ethnic identity to the abstract idea of being "Turkish" -- not to mention that being "Turkish" also requires one to negotiate dual identities, and dual sets of memories, associated with being both "European" and "Muslim". Steven Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent in Istanbul, and author of Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds (2001) writes that:

Intolerance is nothing new in Turkey.  In Streets of Memory [subtitled Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul], a recent study of cultural attitudes in an Istanbul neighborhood that was a jumble of nationalities, Amy Mills writes:

The price of belonging, in Turkey, comes at a cost -- the forgetting of particular histories at the expense of the frequent retelling of others and the silencing of particular memories that cannot entirely be repressed.

She finds troubling evidence of "polarization in thinking about national identities and minority histories."  People shy away from recalling, for example, the infamous pogrom in 1955 when rioters backed by police attacked homes and businesses owned by Greeks, Armenians, and Jews.  But she also notes "an increasing curiosity and desire among Turkish citizens to learn more about places and pasts in Turkey" [from "Triumphant Turkey?", New York Review of Books, 08/18/2011].



"To remember" in Quechua, a language of the indigenous people of Peru, and the name of an exhibition mounted after a 2003 "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" to inquire into the violent clash, between 1980 and 2000, between the Maoist "Shining Path" insurgents and the armed forces.  In 2009, the German government offered to build a "museum of memory" to display the exhibit, but the government turned it down.  As Peruvian president Alan Garcia said, "Memory doesn't belong to a particular group", and any such museum should "take all perspectives into account" (Garcia had also also been president during some of the period in question, 1985-1990).  On the other hand, Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, replied that "We need a museum of memory to fight the intolerant, blind and obtuse attitudes which unleash political violence" ("Don't Look Back: History in Peru", The Economist, 03/14/2009).


See also The Memory Hole.



The Holocaust

The literature of the Nazi holocaust is focused almost entirely on memory.  In The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso, 2000), Norman G. Finkelstein, himself the child of Holocaust survivors, notes that American Jewish elites "forgot" the holocaust until the 1960s, out of fear of being accused of "dual loyalty" in a time of McCarthyism.  Then, they "remembered" the holocaust, once the United States had established a strategic alliance with Israel.  At that point, in Finkelstein's view, The Holocaust, thus capitalized, became an ideological tool.  A similar point is made, less provocatively, by Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life (2000).  In any event, the motto of Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 19 (the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1942) is "Never Forget".  As the last Holocaust survivors (like the last combat veterans of World War II) die, issues of memory persist, albeit in collective rather than individual form.  As Melvin Jules Bukiet noted ("In the Beginning Was Auschwitz", Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/9/02),

"Memory" is the mantra of all the institutions that reckon with the Holocaust, but memory is an inaccurate term.  For anyone who wasn't there, on either side of the barbed wire, Jew or German, thinking about the Holocaust is really an act of the imagination.  All we know is how little we know.

The lack of a certain amount and kind of written documentation has made it possible for some people to deny the Holocaust even occurred, or that Hitler had any role in it.  This was an issue in the libel suit brought by David Irving, author of Hitler's War, against Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.  Irving lost his suit, but the case was not frivolous: it raised an important question that goes to the heart of the relationship between memory and history, and one that is critical for the field of oral history: in knowing the past, how much weight should we give to documents, and how much to eyewitness testimony?  The Irving-Lipstadt case is documented by D.D. Guttenplan, London correspondent for The Nation, in the Holocaust on Trial (Norton, 2002) 

In a discussion of "Breakthrough Books" on collective memory published in Lingua Franca (March/April 1996), Michael Schudson, author of Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past (Basic, 1992), stated that "There are two kinds of studies of collective memory -- those that examine the Holocaust, and all the others.  Even people whose own work lies in that second group find Holocaust studies inescapably important, capable of illuminating every corner of the general topic with intellectual clarity and urgency".  

James Young has provided highly regarded analyses of collective memories of the Holocaust in:

Other books on memory and the Holocaust include:

A study of Jewish collective memory is found in Zakhor by Yosef Hayim Yerushalami (1982), who notes that the command zakhor "to remember", occurs frequently in the Hebrew Bible. Dana Horn comments:

"Commanded by God dozens of times in the Hebrew Bible to remember their past, Jews historically obeyed not by recording events but  by ritually re-enacting them, by understanding the present through the lens of the past" ("Articles of Faith" by Dara Horn, New York times Book Review, 09/01/2013).



Hypnosis is often employed as a technique for the self-regulation of memory.  In posthypnotic amnesia, people cannot remember events and experiences that transpired during hypnosis.  In hypnotic agnosia, they cannot access generic, impersonal knowledge of a "semantic" or "procedural" sort.  Posthypnotic amnesia has been studied experimentally for more than half a century, but hypnotic agnosia is relatively unknown.  Claims have also been made that suggestions for hypermnesia and age regression can refresh people's recollection of forgotten events, and have been used in both forensic and clinical situations, but the validity of memories "recovered" through these techniques has been hotly debated. Claims that hypnosis can enhance the learning process have generally not been confirmed by experimental research.

Read "Hypnosis, Memory, and Amnesia", a brief summary of the literature on hypnosis and memory based on a paper originally presented at a symposium at the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease, on Memory and Memory Disorders", New York, December 1995, and subsequently published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences as part of a special issue, Biological and Psychological Perspectives on Memory and Memory Disorders, edited by L.R. Squire and D.L. Schacter (372, 1727-1732, 1997).  

Read "Altering States of Consciousness" by J.F. Kihlstrom and E. Eich.  This article is a chapter in Learning, Remembering, Believing: Enhancing Human Performance, edited by D. Druckman and R.A. Bjork (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 1994, pp. 207-248), which was a report of the Committee on the Enhancement of Human Performance of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences.  The report was one of several commissioned by the United States Army to evaluate psychosocial techniques for enhancing individual and team performance, especially under conditions of stress.  The chapter contains a brief review of the use of hypnosis to enhance learning, memory, and other aspects of human performance.  Requires Adobe Acrobat reader.

Read "Hypnosis and Memory" by J.F. Kihlstrom.  This is an article in Learning and Memory, 2nd ed., ed. by J.F. Byrne (Farmington Hills, Mi: Macmillan Reference, 2003, pp. 240-242).  This article covers all the effects of hypnosis on memory, including posthypnotic amnesia, agnosia, hypermnesia, and age regression, with comments on the use of hypnosis for the recovery of memory in clinical and forensic situations.


The Indian Rope Trick

In the Indian Rope Trick, a fakir tosses a ball of twine into the air; a small boy climbs the extended rope, and then disappears into thin air.  The first report of the trick, by John Elbert Wilkie (then a journalist writing for the Chicago Tribune, later the head of the US Secret Service) in 1890, is now known to be a hoax (not least because Wilkie confesed his prank).  The trick has never been performed, and it was never witnessed.  Nevertheless, a number of people claimed to have witnessed it.  Peter Lamont, in The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005), speculates that "the true secret of the Indian rope Trick is the way the supple human memory combines events we've really seen with legends we've only heard, and shapes them into the best possible story to tell our grandchildren" (quotation from "The Grift of the Magi" by Teller, himself a magician, reviewing the book in the New York Times Book Review, 02/13/05).  Lamont's book even offers an instance of a false "recovered memory".  Again quoting Teller: "In 1925, the aptly named Lady Waghorn suddenly remembered witnessing the trick in Madras in 1891, although for 34 years she had somehow thought 'nothing about it'."  The memory is recovered, because she had not been conscious of it for years; it is false, because -- to repeat -- Wilkie's 1890 report was a hoax, and the Rope Trick has never been performed, before or since.


Institutional Memory

In sociology, an institution may be defined as  "(1) a set of mores or formal rules, or both, which can be fulfilled only by (2) people acting collectively, in established complementary capacities or offices" (Everett C. Hughes, "Institutions", in R.E. Park (ed.), An Outline of the Principles of Sociology, p. 297).  Hughes further noted that "Institutions exist in the integrated and standardized behavior of individuals" (p. 319).  Talcott Parsons argued that institutions were systems of norms that "regulate the relations of individuls to each other" and specify "what the relations of individuals ought to be" (The Structure of Social Action, 1934/1990, p. 327).  

Emile Durkheim, the pioneering French sociologist, defined human institutions as symbolic systems, entailing collective representations and beliefs.  

These systems, although a product of human interaction, are experienced by individuals as objective.  Although subjectively formed, they become "crystallized."  They are, in Durkheim's (1901/1950) terms, "social facts": phenomena perceived by the individual as being both "external" (to that person) and "coercive" (backed by sanctions).  And, as is the case with religious systems, ritual and ceremonies play a vital role in expressing and reinforcing belief....  These symbolic systems -- systems of knowledge, belief, and "moral authority" -- are for Durkheim social institutions (Scott, 1995, p. 10). 

Scott (p. 10) further quotes Jeffrey C. Alexander on Durkheim:

Institutions, Durkheim writes, are a product of joint activity and association, the effect of which is to "fix," to "institute" outside us certain initially subjective and individual ways of acting and judging.  Institutions, then, are the "crystallizations" of Durkheim's earlier writing (Theoretical Logic in Sociology: The Antinomies of Classical Thought: Marx and Durkheim, 1983, Vol. 2, p. 259).

Max Weber on the Definition of Social Science

Another pioneering sociologist, Max Weber, defined the social sciences as those in which both the investigator and the subject attach meaning to events.  The human ecology of memory is a social-scientific approach to memory is primarily concerned with what people remember, individually and collectively, and how individuals and groups give meaning to the past.  In this respect, it complements the natural-scientific that characterizes so much of psychology and cognitive neuroscience, which is primarily concerned with how people remember, in the abstract.

For introductions to the sociology of institutions and organizations (none of which make any particular mention of institutional memory), see:

See also Organizational Memory.



John McPhee, in an autobiographical essay, has this advice for budding journalists and nonfiction writers:

Whatever you do, don't rely on memory.  don't even imagine that you will be able to remember verbatim in the evening what people said during the day....  From the start, make clear what you are doing and who will publish what you write.  Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.

Landmarks and Collective Memories

Writing of 2 Columbus Circle, the controversial postmodern New York City skyscraper designed by Edward Durrell Stone in "Venetian Gothic" style, but also of the late, lamented, Pennsylvania Station in the same city, Herbert Muschamp writes: "A building does not have to be an important work of architecture to become a first-rate landmark.  Landmarks are not created by architects.  They are fashioned by those who encounter them after they are built.  The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city's memory.  Compared to the place it occupies in social history, a landmark's artistic qualities are incidental" ("The Secret History", New York Times, 01/08/06).


Library Digitization as a Threat to Collective Memory

Digitization of books and journals, however much it may be a boon to scholarship, creates a risk that other sorts of artifacts, which cannot be digitized, will be lost to collective memory.  So argues Katie Hafner in "History, Digitized (and Abridged)" (New York Times, 03/11/07).  She writes: "As more museums and archives become digital domains, and as electronic resources become the main tool for gatehring information, items left behind in nondigital form... are in danger of disappearing from the collective cultural memory, potentially leaving our historical fabric riddled with holes".  Hafner quotes Edward L. Ayers, a historian at the University of Virginia: "Material that is not digitized risks being beglected as it would not have been in the past, virtually lost to the great majority of potential users".

See also Aide-Memoire, Digitization as a Threat to Individual Memory.



Mnemosyne was not only the goddess of memory; she was also the mother of the Muses, the goddesses of the various arts.  Thus, there is a link between memory and literature (including history, whose Muse was Clio) and the other arts.  Two particularly good sources on the relationship between memory and literature, and the literature of memory beyond psychology and the other cognitive sciences, are:

The Anatomy of Memory: An Anthology, edited by James McConkey (Oxford University Press, 1996).  Originally conceived as the "Oxford Companion to Memory", part of the famous Oxford series, this anthology is "an engrossing treasury of commentaries on memory as the necessary condition of individual and cultural identity, and as the provider of the materials and themes of our philosophies, religions, and literary creations" (M.H. Abrams, from the book jacket).  

I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, by Patricia Hampl (Norton, 1999).  A shorter book that "looks so deeply into the relation between memory and imagination as to become a guide, for both writers and readers, to what Virginia Woolf called 'life writing'" (Mark Doty, from the book jacket).

The literature of memory encompasses as literature of forgetting as well as a literature of remembering.  For examples of the former, see:

The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology of Writing on the Subject of Memory Loss, edited by Jonathan Lethem (Vintage Books, 2000).  Part of the 'Black Lizard" crime series, this book does "nothing less than define a new genre of literature -- the amnesia story" (from the book description on www. amazon.com). As Lethem noted (in an interview with Kevin Canfield of the Hartford Courant, 2001), amnesia "isolates the basic question people are asking all the time -- even if they're not aware they're asking it -- which is, 'Who am I?' and 'Where do I come from?'  The function of amnesia is that it helps make that question super-literal, super-explicit."

Link to comments on the role that memory plays in literature.


Lunch Box Memories

Referring to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, Lawrence M. Small, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, identifies the lunch box is "that metal madeleine with the power to turn purposeful grownups into carefree kids again" ("Cartwheels at 50", Smithsonian magazine, 04/02).  The Smithsonian has organized a traveling exhibition, Lunchbox Memories, which traces the cultural evolution of both lunch and the lunchbox.  In the introduction to the exhibition, the curators note that "Like an old song, a metal lunch box takes us back in time, recalling school days or workdays, favorite foods, a certain lunch table, a friend, a quiet moment"Link to the exhibition website.


Malcolm C. Dizer and "History in Philately"

Malcolm C. Dizer (1886-1978) was a British-American philatelist who assembled a number of specialized postage stamp albums under the general topic of "History in Philately".  The albums constitute an excellent example of the use of postage stamps to preserve collective memory.

In addition, Dizer produced a limited-edition album of United Nations stamps and postal stationery, with a custom album in blue embossed Postage Stamps of the United Nations in silver -- a project endorsed by Reidar Tvedt, Chief of the United Nations Postal Administration.  In a letter to Dizer dated January 25, 1955, and included in the album, Tvedt expressed "great regret" that Dizer had "decided against production of a United Nations Album", further noting that "the UN Postal Administration has a particular interest in seeing the Album completed".  The circumstances of this letter are unknown.  It is not clear whether this album was intended to be the official UN collection, a replica of the official collection, or the prototype of a consumer album to be offered to collectors through the UNPA or the United Nations Bookshop and similar venues.  Dizer produced annual supplements to this album at least through 1969.

Throughout all this activity, two basic themes can be seen: an intense patriotism, toward both Britain and the United States; and intense idealism, especially concerning the United Nations. 

Link to an extensive website on Dizer and his "History in Philately Series".


Martha Stewart's Former Best Friend's Memory

In 2004, Martha Stewart (the domestic diva, the doyenne of domesticity) went on trial on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice arising from an apparent incident of insider trading involving ImClone, a pharmaceutical company.  (Samuel D. Waksal, the CEO of ImClone and one of Stewart's close friends, sold a large amount of ImClone stock before the Food & drug administration announced that it would not approve a new ImClone drug for sale; so did Ms. Stewart).  At Ms. Stewart's trial, Marianna Pasternak, described in one news account as Ms. Stewart's former best friend, testified for the prosecution that, when discussing her stock sale, "Isn't it nice to have brokers who tell you those things?".  Under cross examination by the defense, however, Ms. Pasternak admitted that Ms. Stewart might not have said this.  According to the New York Times 

"I do not know whether that statement was made by Martha or was thought in my mind," she told the court.  She described the memory as "a string of words that I recall."  Later, however when questioned further by a prosecutor, she said she believed "that Martha said it" ("Damming Words in Stewart Case, or Maybe Not" by Constance L. Hays, 02/21/04).

In another Times article, Ms. Pasternak is further quoted as saying "I do not know if Martha said that, or it's me who thought those words" ("On the Witness Stand, Friendships Can Also Face a Trial" by Leslie Eaton, 02/21/04).

The episode may illustrate certain vicissitudes of eyewitness memory, including imagination inflation and source amnesia.  If Pasternak had the thought herself, but attributed it to Ms. Stewart, it is an interesting reversal of cryptomnesia, or "unconscious plagiarism".



The biologist Richard Dawkins has defined memes as individual units of information, analogous to genes, that proliferate through a culture based on Darwinian principles of variation, selection, and retention (see The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976).  For Dawkins, memes are selected in the "marketplace of ideas" in a manner to the selection of bodily and behavioral traits in biological evolution.  In Dawkins' view, memes are the cognitive basis of culture, and they have much in common with collective memory. 

Memes include any pieces of information that are widely shared within a culture.

Phenomena instigated by memes include:
According to Dawkins, memes survive, like everything else survives, by replicating themselves (which is why they're subject to something like natural selection).  David Deutsch, in the Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World has described two strategies for meme-replication: rational and anti-rational.  As David Albert puts it in his review of the book ("Explaining It All", New York Times Book Review, 08/14/2011)

Deutsch is interested in neo-­Darwinian accounts of the evolution of culture. Such accounts treat cultural items — languages, religions, values, ideas, traditions — in much the way that Darwinian theories of biological evolution treat genes. They are called "memes," and are treated as evolving, just as genes do, by mutation and selection, with the most successful memes being those that are the most faithfully replicated. Deutsch writes with enormous clarity and insight about how the mechanisms of mutation and transmission and selection of memes are going to have to differ, in all sorts of ways, from those of genes.

He also provides an elegant analysis of two particular strategies for meme-­replication, one he calls "rational" and the other he calls "anti-rational." Rational memes — the sort that Deutsch imagines will replicate themselves well in post-Enlightenment societies — are simply good ideas: the kind that will survive rigorous scientific scrutiny, the kind that will somehow make life easier or safer or more rewarding because they tell us something useful about how the world actually works. Irrational memes — which are more interesting, and more diabolical, and which Deutsch thinks of as summing up the essential character of pre-­Enlightenment societies — reproduce themselves by disabling the capacities of their hosts (by means of fear, or an anxiety to conform, or the appearance of naturalness and inevitability, or in any number of other ways) to evaluate or invent new ideas. And one particular subcategory of memes — about which Deutsch has very clever things to say — succeeds precisely by pretending not to tell the truth. So, for example: "Children who asked why they were required to enact onerous behaviors that did not seem functional would be told ‘because I say so,’ and in due course they would give their children the same reply to the same question, never realizing that they were giving the full explanation. (This is a curious type of meme whose explicit content is true even though its holders do not believe it.)"

For sympathetic analyses of the "meme" concept, see



While autobiographies make use of documentary records, memoirs are, almost by definition, literary representations of memory.  And so, like memories, they may be inaccurate or willfully distorted.  Memoirs are representations of memory, not of history.

The biographer Dorothy Gallagher notes that "Writing is problem solving; whether in fiction, biography, or memoir, certain basic questions have to be resolved".  She continues:

In biography, at least, a writer leans heavily on materials gathered in research.  Working with a trove of documents is constraining, but also in some ways liberating, as working a puzzle is liberating.  The clues are in your files, and if you've done your job as a researcher, you have the tools to solve the puzzle.  But when I turned to memoir -- the shamelessly naked core of a writer's necessary material -- I found myself traveling as light as any writer of fiction.

I have never written fiction, and this memoir [How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories] may be as close as I ever get to it.  No more than a biography or a novel is memoir true to life.  because, truly, life is just one damn thing after another.  The writer's business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story.  Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve her story....  A reporter of fact is in service to the facts..., but a writer serves the wtory without apology to competing claims....

Now you may ask: Just what is the relation of your memoir to the truth?

It is as close as it can be....

The moment you put pen to paper and begin to shape a story, the essential nature of life -- that one damn thing after another -- is lost.  No matter how ambiguous you try to make a story, no matter how many ends you leave hanging, it's a package made to travel.

Everything that happened is not in my stories; how could it be?  Memory is selective, storytelling insists on itself.  But there is nothing in my stories that did not happen.  In their essence they are true.

Or a shade of true... ("Recognizing the Book that Needs to be Written", New York Times, 06/17/02).

Similarly, Lisa Knopp has written in the Nature of Home: A Lexicon and Essays (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) that

The act of making something from what is already there always involves a simultaneous creation and destruction....  Even what seems like the purest, most self-contained type of creativity -- turning the events, images, and ideas of one's life into a written story --is a destroyer.  Writing about one's memories, trimming, padding, moving them around, reshaping them until they fit a readable or "tellable" form, changes these memories in great or small ways.  What the writer remembers after her act of creation is not her memory of the event that is the subject of her essay or story, but the written account of her memory (as quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 09/27/02).

Publishing a memoir, as with giving an oral history, is an exercise in both remembering and performing. Bernard Cooper, writing in Baxter's The Business of Memory (1999), notes that "The process of writing a memoir is insular, ruminative, a mining of privacies; once published, however, the book becomes an act of extroversion..., a performance of self rather than its articulation.  The gap between these two experiences -- the creation of a memoir and the ramifications of having written one -- is wide enough, it seems to me, to bewilder even the most poised and gregarious among us".


Memoir!  A sweet word that, year after year, liberates writers caught between genres.  Tell the story of your own life and you get some of the liberty of fiction and all the authority of nonfiction.

Virginia Heffernan
New York Times Book Review, 07/14/02

Link to a page on memoir.

Link to a page on memory in literature.


Memorabilia and Souvenirs

Many people save items from travel or special occasions -- matchbooks and shampoo bottles from restaurants and hotels, orchids from the senior prom, pressed in a favorite book.  These mementos are literally retrieval cues, prompts that help us to remember some event.  Debra A. Klein has written of her own collection:  "When I can't get away, I can still retreat to these places.  Tey are preserved forever, or at least for decades, not just in a corner of my mind but also in a corner of my room.  With bags of memories to sift through, I will always be able to relive my journeys, even after I reach the point in life when I'm not going anywhere" (Those Tiny Soaps?  Memories, My Dear", New York Times Travel Section, 06/09/02; also Letters on Travel, 06/30/02). 


Memorials and Monuments

"Constructing Memory", the Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Richmond, California, honoring American women's labor during World War II.
Design by Susan Schwartzenberg and Cheryl Barton.  Dedicated October 2000. Selected through a 1998 competition open to West Coast artists, the design is described by the artists as a "construction metaphor exploring the symbolic connection between building ships and the reconstructive processes of human memory" (from the Rosie the Riveter website). 

Art of Memorial?  The Forgotten History of Canada's War Art by Laura Brandon "explores the role of art in the shaping of Canadian memories of wartime" (Nina C. Ayoub, "New Scholarly Books", Chronicle of Higher Education, 07/28/07).

See also:

The 9/11 Memorial Museum opened at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan in 2014.  Adam Gopnik wrote a review of the Museum, with notes on other memorials (including Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, and on civic memorials in general, in the July 7-14, 2014, issue of the New Yorker:
The site contains more contradictions, unresolved and perhaps unresolvable, than any other eight acres in Manhattan.  A celebration of liberty tightly policed; a cemetery that cowers in the shadow of commerce; an insistence that we are her to remember and an ambition to let us tell you what to recall; the boast that we have completely started over and the promise that we will never forget -- visitors experience these things with a free-floating unease. 

Charleston, Charlottesville, and Civil War Memorials

Two events galvanized a debate in the United States over monuments and memorials commemorating the Confederacy and Confederate "heroes" of the Civil War. 
Subsequently, a number of officials in several southern cities and states (e.g., Baltimore, Maryland; Nashville, Tennessee; Lexington, Kentucky; Durham, North Caolina; and Jacksonville, Florida) called for the removal or relocation of public monuments that are symbols of the Confederacy.  There had been controversy in the Old South over such proposals before, but in the wake of Charlestown and Carlottesville, the issue took on new urgency.  "Opponents of Confederate Symbols see them as celebrations of racism and slavery, but their defenders say they are historically important and accuse critics of erasing the past or attacking white or Southern heritage" ("State Leaders Call for Confederate Monuments to be Removed" by Liam stack and Christina Caron, New York Times, 08/15/2017)

And it's not just in the Old South.  Yale University removed the name of John C. Calhoun, who as a senator, cabinet member, and vice-president advocated slavery and white supremacy, from one of its residential colleges (Calhoun had been a Yale graduate -- as if that were a good reason for having named the college for him in the first place).  And Princeton University had to confront the question of what to do about Woodrow Wilson, a former president of the university, and namesake of its School of International Relations, who as President of the United States had imposed racial segregation on the federal Civil Service.  

Never mind that many of the individuals depicted on the monuments were, technically, traitors (Lee, Jefferson Davis) and sometimes war criminals as well (Nathan Bedford Forrest).  The monuments ask us to remember these men as heroes to the "Lost Cause" of the South.

And never mind that most of the monuments were erected long after the Civil War had ended, at the time of the "Jim Crow" era in the South in the 1920s, or as backlash to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.  In fact, the embrace of Confederate symbols by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists shows that Confederate symbolism has everything to do with race, and little or nothing to do with Southern identity and nostalgia.  Even some people whom we would ordinarily expect to support Southern identity and nostalgia recognize this: some great-great-grandchildren of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson (not to be confused with Andrew Jackson) have advocate for their removal.


The entire conflict is, essentially, a conflict over memory: how slavery, the Civil War, and the Confederacy, is to be remembered by history.   Was the Civil War about slavery, or was it about states' rights, taxes, and and even if was about slavery
(which of course it was), there were other famous individuals, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whom we honor even though they themselves owned slaves.  Not to mention Andrew Jackson, whose policy of relocating Native Americans from the southeastern states probably counts as genocide.  Why not remove their statues as well.  The answer given by most historians is that Washington and Jefferson fought the Revolutionary War to establish the United States, and Jackson (for all his other faults) at least was President of the United States, while Lee, Davis, Forest, and the other leaders of the Confederacy fought to destroy the Union.  Still, most historians are nervous about erasing history.  They'd rather see it reinterpreted, and the statues themselves relocated to museums.


Memory Championships

The year 2007 saw the 10th annual USA Memory Championships, in which competitors memorized long lists of names and faces, strings of numbers, decks of cards, and poems.  The winner of the championship, founded by Tony Dottino, a former executive at IBM, will then compete in the World Memory Championships.  An article on the American series indicates that most of the competitors relied on various mnemonic strategies to perform their feats.  For example, one competitor memorized a deck of cards by assigning each card a letter -- A for Ace, B for duece, and so on, and then naming each card for a celebrity (so that, for example, the ace of spades became Arnold Schwarzenegger).  How this is supposed to help isn't clear, as assigning letters to each card, and then relating each named card to a celebrity, should only increase the load on memory.  But this just increases the mystery associated with high-levels of mnemonic skill.  (See 'It Was a Day to Remember for America's Mental Athletes" by Joanne Kaufman, Wall Street Journal, 03/15/07.)


"Memory Drawings" by Robert Morris

The contemporary American artist Robert Morris (b. 1931) makes explicit use of Bartlett's "method of serial reproduction" in his Memory Drawing series of 1963.  In this work, simply Morris writes out a text that he has committed to memory: over the five drawings of the series, the reproduction of the text becomes increasingly full of errors.  Here is the entire series, reproduced here by courtesy of the Leo Castelli Gallery (thanks to Robert Morris and Ricky Manne for arranging this).  

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See Inability to Endure or Deny the World: Representation and Text in the Work of Robert Morris by Terrie Sultan, catalog of an exhibit of Morris's work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1990-1991.


The Memory Hole

'He who controls the past, controls the future: so wrote George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty Four (written 1948; published 1949). the novel tells the story of Winston Smith, a clerk in the Ministry of Truth, who alters newspapers and other documents in accordance with the pronouncements of Big Brother and the Party, and destroys the old versions by dropping them down the "memory hole".  In Orwell's vision, political control is exercised through the control of information, including the control of memory: "Who controls the past, controls the future.  Who controls the present, controls the past."

Interestingly, Orwell wasn't above using the memory hole himself.  Bernard Crick, author of the authorized biography of Orwell, found it difficult to corroborate some of the incidents reported in Orwell's autobiography, and in his personal essays.  Louis Menand notes one instance, from  one of the "London Letters" Orwell wrote for Partisan Review during World War II, ("Honest, Decent, Wrong", New Yorker, 01/27/03).   Orwell had reported that park railings were being dismantled for use as scrap metal, but only in working-class neighborhoods, not upper-class ones.  "When a friend pointed out that [the story] was untrue, "Orwell is supposed to have replied that it didn't matter, 'it was essentially true'".

Orwell's point about the control of information is illustrated by many totalitarian regimes, and their fates.  To take one example, the Christmas 1989 revolution against the Ceausescu regime in Romania did not begin in Bucharest, the country's capital, but in the provincial city of Timisoara.  Why there?  Ceausescu and his family and cronies exercised total control of state media, and there were few if any independent media outlets available, Timisoara was within range of radio and television stations in Italy, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, so the people there had access to the news that the Communist countries of eastern Europe were coming apart at the seams.  For a dramatic account of the Christmas revolution, see Andrei Codrescu, The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution (Morrow, 1991). 

The memory hole is not just a technique of totalitarian regimes.  The temptation to wipe out bad collective memories is present even in the most open, democratic societies, like the United States.

"The Memory Hole" (www.thememoryhole.org), a website maintained by Russ Kick, is dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of material, especially government files and corporate memos, "that exposes things that we're not supposed to know (or that we're supposed to forget)".  See "Peeking Behind the Curtain of Secrecy" by Tom McNichol, New York Times, 11/13/03.

See also National Memory.


Memory Plays

A theatrical genre related to the literary memoir, a memory play is one in which the narrator, usually an adult, reflects on an earlier time when he or she underwent a life-changing experience.  The classic example is Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and Suddenly, Last Summer (the latter based on events in the life of Williams' beloved sister, Rose).  

The narrator in The Glass Menagerie, Tom Wingfield, defines the concept: "The playis memory. Being a memory play, it is dimply lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic; in memory everything seems to happen to music".

Other salient examples:

Memory Studies

Memory Studies is a scientific journal devoted to the interdisciplinary study of memory, including the social sciences, humanities, and arts, as well as the usual psychology and cognitive science.  Established in 2008, its founding editors were Amanda Barnier, Andew Hoskins, Wulf Kansteiner, and John Sutton.  

According to its statement of aims, Memory Studies "examines the social, cultural, cognitive, political and technological shifts affecting how, what and why individuals, groups and societies remember, and forget. The journal responds to and seeks to shape public and academic discourses on the nature, manipulation, and contestation of memory in the contemporary era....  Areas of dialogue and debate will include: Everyday remembering; Collective, public, social and shared memory; Biography and history; Schema and narrative; The ethics of remembering and forgetting; Commemoration and remembrance; Organic and artificial memory; Media and mechanisms; Documentation and archive; Holocaust memory; Cosmopolitanism and globalization; Cultural memory and heritage; Catastrophe and trauma; Nation and nostalgia; Oral history and the culture of the witness; Memory and the politics of identity."

See Scholarly Journals for a list of -- what else? -- other scholarly journals devoted to memory.


Memory Tables

Memory tables, typically containing pictures and other mementos of the deceased, are often featured at funeral homes during visitation sessions, funerals, or memorial ceremonies.  They similar to the ofrendas which figure in the celebration of El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) in Meso-American cultures.  

Link to an advertisement for a wrought-iron memory table designed and made by Kendall LeCompte, and available for sail by Iron Station, a store specializing in iron crafts.



Forgetfulness figures prominently in the complaints associated with menopause, just as they do in other aspects of normal aging.  However, memory function in menopause has rarely been studied with rigorous laboratory method.  A longitudinal study of women by P.B. Meyer et al. (Neurology, 2003), surprisingly, found that memory functions actually improved as women aged, even for those who had entered (or continued through) menopause.  Meyer et al. offer a number of interesting hypotheses to explain this surprising result, but it may be that their experimental techniques, involving "short-term" memory functions tested by the digit-span and digit-symbol tests, were simply not representative of the everyday circumstances in which these women experienced forgetfulness.  Alternatively, the memory complaints may have been related to menopause-related depressive mood, as opposed to menopause itself.  Research on menopause and memory should take care to use ecologically valid memory tests, and also distinguish between the effects of menopause per se, the reaction to menopause, and normal aging.

See also Aging, Depression.


Merle Oberon's Memories of Tasmania

Hollywood (and Tasmanian) legend has it that Merle Oberon, the actress, was born and raised in Tasmania (as was Errol Flynn, another famous actor).  However, in 1978, visiting Tasmania with her fourth husband, Oberon let slip at an official banquet that she had actually been born in Mumbai (Bombay), India.  Nevertheless, "She was surrounded by Tasmanians who vividly recalled her and assured her that they knew both her parents well.  'In Tasmania, we tell stories to reassure ourselves we have not slipped unnoticed over the rim of the world', a Tasmanian historian wrote of the Oberon affair" (William Grimes, reviewing In Tasmania by Nicholas Shakespeare in the New York Times, reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, 06/06/06 -- Shakespeare gives a full account of the episode).



Mnemonic devices help us to remember lists of things, like the notes of the treble clef ("FACE", "Every Good Boy Deserves Favor"), the lengths of the months ("Thirty days hath November...."), or the 12 cranial nerves "On Old Olympus' Towering Tops a Foolish Austrian Grew Vines and Hops").  Cullen Murphy has suggested that mnemonic devices should be added to UNESCO's list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ("Immaterial Civilization", Atlantic Monthly, 9/01).

It's clear why mnemonic techniques were popular in ancient Greece and Rome, where literacy was rare, paper was expensive, and printing virtually nonexistent.  But why should mnemonics have persisted into the Renaissance, even after the invention of movable type?  Anthony Grafton, reviewing Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic by Ingrid Rowland, suggests an answer ("'But They Burned Giordano Bruno'", New York Review of Books, 11/20/2008, pp. 76-77):

To readers who spend their days in front of computer screens, the art of memory sounds not just archaic, but antediluvian -- the kind of thing that might be used in carnival performances, rather than a feat to astonish the learned.  In Bruno's world, however, memory mattered.  Rowland suggests that it offered a way to impose order on the growing masses of files produced by the diplomats and bureaucrats of the time, some of whom complained that they were drowning in seas of paper.

This seems unlikely: clerks and lawyers all over Renaissance Europe were already devising new filing systems, which eventually grew into archives designed to handle exactly this problem.  Rather, as Ann Blair, Noel Malcolm, and others have taught us, it was readers at every level, from kings to clerics, who needed help.  Scholars had to master the classics so they could quote and imitate them, as Bruno himself regularly did; statesmen and merchants wanted tools with which to control, master, and evaluate the flood of texts that poured from Europe's printing presses, offering information about lands that might be conquered, converted, or at least traded with.  Readers of many kinds worked pen in hand, decorating the margins of their books with content summaries; often they copied out excerpts and stored them under topical headings in notebooks (card systems wee developed in the seventeenth century).  As shelves groaned and notebooks swelled to bursting, memory remained the only thread that could lead one back through paper labyrinths to the facts and data that mattered.

TonyJudtPhotoByStevePyke.jpg (10386 bytes)One would think that, in this age of paper and pencil, not to mention hand-held devices with voice-to-text capacity, mnemonic devices would have outlived their usefulness.  But they still have their uses.  Consider the case of Tony Judt, the political historian who was struck by an aggressive variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ("Lou Gherig's Disease"), which -- within about a year of diagnosis -- rendered him quadriplegic, paralyzed from the waist down, and requiring an assistive breathing device.

By last February, Judt could no longer move his hands.  "I thought it would be catastrophic,", he recalls matter-of-factly.  How would he write? He discovered that a lifetime of lecturing -- often without notes and in complete sentences and full paragraphs -- had trained him to think out loud.  He can now, "with a bit of mental preparation," dictate "an essay or an intellectually thoughtful e-mail."  Unable to jot down ideas on a yellow pad, Judt has taught himself elaborate memorization schemes of the sort described by the Yale historian Jonathan D. Spence in his 1984 book, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci.  Like Ricci, a 16-th century Jesuit missionary to China, Judt imagines structures in his head where he can store his thoughts and ideas.  The basic principle: Picture entering a large house; turn left and there is a room with shelves and tables; leave a memory on each surface until the [room] fills.  Now head down the hall into another room.  To retrieve your memories, to reconstruct a lecture or recall the content and structure of an article, you re-enter the building and follow the same path, which should trigger the ideas you left behind.

"It works," Judt says.  In fact, he tells me, his mental acuity has grown stronger over the past year.  He compares his situation to that of a blind person with uniquely sensitive ears, or of a deaf person with extraordinary eyesight.  "I knew it to be theoretically true that when you are deprived of everything else, the thing you are not deprived of gets better," he says.  "But it has been very odd to experience that in practice."  After a moment, he goes on: "I'm a 61-year-old guy, I'm not as sharp as I was when I was 51.  But the things I could do last year I can do better this year."  ("The Trials of Tony Judt", by E.R. Goldstein, Chronicle of Higher Education, 01/15/2010).

Judt also described his technique in another interview:

You've spoken to the Guardian about how your condition has led you to write with the aid of a memory palace. Can you walk me through it? What kind of furniture is there?

Sure. Well, first, it's not a memory palace—I'm not a sixteenth-century Italian aristocrat. It's a memory chalet, because I like Switzerland . In my mind's eye, it's a building about the size of a large Swiss house or a very small Swiss hotel, with cute little gables and pretty little red and white flowers in the windows. I go in, and on the left, let's say, there will be a little room where you keep skis and boots and sleds, and on the right there will be a toilet. And in the next room there'll be a kitchen on the left, and on the right there'll be a little dining area or something. And maybe if you go to the hallway toward the back, there's a large living area. There will be a staircase in the back, which is where they are in Swiss chalets, going up to the bedrooms.

Now, I'm lying in bed—it's not much fun, lying there thinking about this thing, a particular chapter, or story, memoir or complicated argument—and I think, How is it going to be organized? The first part will go down with the ski boots, on the left. Then I go into the kitchen and there's a series of drawers, and in each of the drawers there will be, maybe with the silverware, the introduction. The main argument will be with the china, or in the pasta cupboard—the pasta cupboard might be convenient because it will make me think of substance. And so it goes until I've got the whole ground floor, roughly speaking, packed away. And then I'll go through it once more. And the next morning, while I'm waiting to be set up, given my coffee, washed and so on, I go through the mind of the Swiss chalet again, and in each of the relevant bins and rooms and so on I will easily remember what goes where. If I'm lucky and the thing was worth preserving, which it may not be, when my assistant, Eugene Rusyn, comes in I can say, I've got an idea for a little memoir; can you jot down some points before we start writing? And that's how it works. ("Talking with Tony Judt" by Christine Smallwood, The Nation, 05/17/2010)

Patient Communications Unlimited has produced "Differential Diagnosis Mnemonics and the Medical History", software designed by Allan Platt for a Palm Pilot PDA, which includes a large number of mnemonic devices for use in taking a patient's history and making a medical diagnosis.

Joshua Foer's book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011) recounts his training in mnemonic devices on his way to competing in the World Memory Championships.  The book contains a history of mnemonics, as well as an intriguing discussion of their present-day application -- especially the "memory palace" version of the Method of Loci.  Foer's book is reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in the daily New York Times ("Remember How Important It Is Not to Forget"), 03/07/2011, and by Alexandra Horowitz in the New York Times Book Review ("How to Memorize Everything", 03/13/2011).  See also Foer's article, "Secrets of a Mind-Gamer", in the New York Times Magazine (02/20/2011), and the subsequent letters to the editor (NYT Magazine, 03/06/2011) -- including the following e-mail from "Kay" in Zurich:

The whole memory-training business is a scam that plays into people's fantasies of being able to change who they are, becoming superintelligent and having perfect memory.  What this article fails to stress is that memory training works only in the special area that you train in.  The Nature study [2003]... found that those world champions didn't fare better than normal people on memory tasks that they hadn't practiced....  so practicing memorizing random numbers will make you better only at memorizing random numbers.  It won't improve how often you forget your keys.

Link to a page of resources on mnemonic devices in the arts, business, history, humanities, math, science, and around the house.

Link to a page of mnemonic devices useful in physiology.



See Memorials and Monuments.



Memory and its failures commonly feature as themes in the movies.  Think about Kurosoawa's Rashomon, Hitchcock's Spellbound, Arnold Swartzenegger in Total Recall, or Memento.  

In an article in the New York Times (12/23/01), John Leland noted that "amnesia rides again in Hollywood, reflecting a culture that until a moment ago had little use for remembering".  Whereas an earlier generation of amnesia movies reflected the "social dislocations" of World War II, Leland argues that the new batch reflects the a historical thinking and emphasis on self-reinvention that was characteristic of the 1990s.  Link to Leland's article.  

Click here for an ongoing list of films, classic and recent, good and bad, in which memory or amnesia play a prominent role in the plot.



Music bears a special relationship with memory.  For example, the work of the American composer Charles Ives often attempts to represent events from his personal history.  As Alex Ross noted in a recent New Yorker essay (10/08/01, p. 78), 

On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo, taking with it more than a thousand lives.  Later that day, in downtown Manhattan, an insurance executive and part-time composer named Charles Ives was sanding on an Elevated-train platform when he heard a barrel organ playing "In the Sweet Bye and Bye."  One by one, those around him began to sing along: first, a workman with a shovel, then a Wall Street baker in white spats, and finally the entire motley crowd.  "They didn't seem to be singing in fun", Ives recalled, "but as a natural outlet for what their feelings had been going through all day long."  Ives recorded the experience in an orchestral work entitled "From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose."  It was intended to capture "the sense of many people living, working, and occasionally going through the same deep experience together."

"The Housatonic at Stockbridge", a movement in Ives' Three Places in New England, "enshrines the memory of a summer walk that Ives took with his wife, Harmony, along the banks of the Housatonic River in the Berkshires (Alex Ross, "Pandemonium: A Celebration of Charles Ives", New Yorker, 06/07/04).   Ross continues: "Ives seldom evoked the past without also suggesting the emotional distortions of memory.  Indeed, this might be one of Lincoln's 'mystic chords of memory' -- not yet touched, it seems, by those long-awaited better angels of our nature."

Writing of a performance of Ives's "The Housatonic at Stockbridge", a movement of Three Places in New England, the critic Paul Griffiths noted that Ives's music was "analogous to a river's swirling, to the experience of time (whereby the present is always overlaid with memory, fantasy, and expectation)..." (New York Times, 09/26/02).

Link to a description of the programs on "Music & Memory: A Season-Long Exploration of How Music Evokes the Past, presented by the American Symphony Orchestra (Leon Botstein, Music Director) during its 2001-2002 concert season.  This page also contains links to the ASO's program notes for the concerts.


Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy is an approach to psychotherapy that encourages patients to analyze the stories they tell, and the stories they are told, about themselves.  Introduced in the late 1980s by Michael White, a psychotherapist at the Dulwich Centre for psychotherapy in Adelaide, Australia (www.dulwichcentre.com.au), narrative therapy assumes that peoples' lives and the relationships are shaped by the stories about themselves that are told in their families and other communities, and helps people to "re-author" their life-stories in a manner that they find preferable and more fulfilling.  Narrative therapy is obviously related to psychoanalysis, which also involves storytelling, except that there is no assumption that the stories being told are historically accurate.  Because these stories are negotiated in a family context, narrative therapy is also related to family therapy.  Because narrative therapy focuses on the story, not on history, and makes no judgment as to whose story is "truer" or "better", in a sense it is a "post-modern" form of therapy.  

An article on the occasion of the Thanksgiving holiday points out that family gatherings often involve the telling of stories about family members ("Don't Be the Turkey at a Family Reunion" by Deborah Baldwin, 11/21/02).  These stories are often embarrassing, and that's part of the fun, but they can also promote stereotypes that no longer match the subject's identity.  As we change, we update the stories of our lives, but we also need to update the stories that other people tell about us.  Moreover, different family members may have different narratives concerning the same events; these stories need to be reconciled somehow.  (There is a whole magazine, Reunions, devoted to techniques for organizing and getting through these events).

Books on narrative therapy:



In literary studies, narratology is the term given to the formal analysis of narratives.  The term itself was apparently coined in 1969, based on a 1966 aphorism by the French postmodern critic Roland Barthes (itself a play on a line from Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus: "Numberless are the world's narratives".  As defined by Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, narrative consists of "all those literary works which are distinguished by two characteristics: the preence of a story and a story-teller" (The Nature of Narrative, 1966).  Peter Books has written that narrative "is one of the principal ways in which we organize our experience of the world -- a part of our cognitive tool kit that was long neglected by psychologists and philosophers" (quoted by William Safire in "Narrative: The new story of story", New York Times Magazine, 12/05/04).  There is now a Society for the Study of Narrative, which publishes a journal, Narrative, devoted to narratological research; there is also a Narrative listserv on the internet.

Because so much of autobiographical and everyday memory consists of stories, narratology connects the psychology of memory to literary studies.  Theories of storytelling began with Aristotle, but the Oxford Companion to English Literature (6th ed., 2000, ed. by Margaret Drabble) locates the modern tradition as beginning with V. Propp's distinction (in Morphology of the Folktale, 1928) between the what and the how of narrative.  Propp further agued that there are 31 basic elements or functions in all folktales, appearing in a fixed order.  Similarly, A.J. Greimas argued that all stories revolve around six basic roles, or actants: subject, object, sender, receiver, helper, and opponent.  With respect to narrative technique, W.C. Booth (The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1961) made distinctions between the "real" and the "implied" author of a novel, and between "reliable" and "unreliable" narrators.  This last concept is especially important for the study of memoir: while first-person narratives are very compelling to the reader, the fallability of memory means that the writer may well be an unreliable narrator.  

For a recent survey of narrator types and narrative orders, see also G. Genette, Narrative Discourse (tr. 1980).



Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental yearning for the past, but as John Tierney points out, it can also be bittersweet, because it implies that the past was somehow better, more desirable, than the present (see "Fond Remembrances" by John Tierney, New York Times (07/09/2013.).  Tierney quotes from the Stephen Sills Song, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes": "Don't let the past remind us of we are not now".  In his article, Tierney describes recent research on nostalgia by social psychologists, chiefly Constantine Sedikides of the University of Southampton, who has developed the Southampton Nostalgia Scale to measure individual differences in this tendency.  Nostalgia was once viewed negatively: it's original description, by Johannes Hoffer, a Swiss physician, in 1688, characterized it as a "neurological disease of essentially demonic cause".  More recently, it was characterized as an "immigrant psychosis" or a type of melancholia.  Sedikides argues for a more positive interpretation,as a cognitive activity that can give us an emotion uplift . 



Most people don't get autobiographies written about them, or publish memoirs themselves, but for many the obituary --  a full-page spread that begins on the front page of the New York Times or a couple of column inches in the local paper -- is a source of collective memory about an individual -- a public representation of a person's life, and a vehicle for others to remember, and be reminded of, him or her.  Some obituaries are prepared well in advance of the person's death, while others are written on the spot by professional journalists.  Some obituaries are prepared by the family of the deceased, some are prepared by the deceased him- or herself (in advance, of course).  Two letters to the advice columnist "Dear Abby" (Contra Costa Times, 09/30/03) illustrate some of the problems of obituaries as memories.  In one case, a man's obituary was prepared by his second wife, mentioned her and their children, but completely omitting mention of the decedent's first wife and their children.  In the other,  Wayne K., of Puyallup, Washington, noted that he wrote his own obituary, and arranged for its publication in his local newspaper, as part of advance preparations for his memorial service -- which he intends to hold at age 80, and attend, assuming he is still alive.  On writing his own obituary, Mr. K. wrote:

"I did it because I wanted people to remember what I wanted them to remember about me, rather than leaving that decision to someone else."


Ofrendas (Offerings)

Ofrendas, (offerings) are common features of celebrations of El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) in Meso-American cultures.  Like the memory tables offered by North American funeral parlors, they are opportunities to reminisce about the departed person.  

See also Descansos, R.I.P. Shirts.


Oral History

The writing of history has been traditionally based on diaries, documents, and other written sources. Recently, however, historians -- especially social historians -- have taken an interest in historical data, such as the memories of the participants in historical events, that does not exist in written form, and must be collected and transcribed before it is analyzed .  Oral history provides information about the impact of events on the lives of ordinary people that would not necessarily be found in the documents left by elites.  At the same time, it raises interesting issues of individual and collective memory.  

Because oral history involves the participation of human subjects in ways that history written from documentary records does not, oral-history research has sometimes come under the purview of university committees established under federal regulations for the protection of human subjects.  The argument is that the publication of oral histories might prove embarrassing, compromise privacy, or pose some other risk, to the informants.  However, some oral historians and other social scientists (such as faculty in anthropology and journalism) have argued that oral histories pose little or no risk.  In September 2003, the federal Office for Human Research Protections ruled that oral histories do not fall under its definition of research involving human subjects, because their goal is not to yield "generalizable principles of historical or social development", but rather to explore "a particular past".  The decision has been well-received by major organizations of historians, but the downside is that it might imply that oral history fails to meet the standards of rigorous social science.  (Source: "Federal Agency Says Oral-History Research is not Covered by Human-Subject Rules" by Jeffrey Brainard, Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/31/03.)

Read a short essay on oral history and memory, with links to relevant Internet resources.


Organizational Memory

"Organizations have records and other ways of recording history.  These records are more or less accurate, more or less complete, more or less shared, and more or less retrievable at some future date.  How organizational memory functions and how t functions differently at different times and for different parts of the organization are questions that considerably affect the pattern of organizational beliefs.  The tendency to use or activate different parts of an organizational memory will vary across individuals as well as organizational subunits" (James G. March, Decisions and Organizations; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988, p. 349).

Organizations are specific forms of institutions, themselves shaped by a wider field of institutional processes, as well as the characteristics of their individual members.  Although organizations have a concrete existence (e.g., as an academic department in a university) that more abstract institutions may lack, at some point, organizations themselves may be subject to institutionalization.  

Scott (1995) quotes the sociologist Robert K. Merton:

There may ensue, in particular vocations and in particular types of organization, the process of sanctification... through sentiment-formation, emotional dependence upon bureaucratic symbols and status, and affective involvement in spheres of competence and authority, there develop prerogatives involving attitudes of moral legitimacy which are established as values in their own right, and are no longer viewed as merely technical means for expediting information ("Bureaucratic Structure and Personality", in Social Theory and Social Structure, originally published in 1940; 2nd ed., 1957, p. 202) 

Thus, although universities did not possess departments as such in the 19th century, it seems almost inconceivable that a new university would not have them.  And the institutionalization of discipline-based departments, such as psychology and sociology, may serve as impediments to interdisciplinary inquiry.

Just as individual persons have memories, so collectivities of persons, like organizations, can also be said to have memories.  Within organizations, such as academic departments, organizational memory is sometimes embodied in a long-time staff member who has seen many department chairs come and go.  But Levitt and March argue that "the lessons of experience are maintained and acumulated within routines despite the turnover of personnel and the passage of time.  Rules, procedures, technologies, beliefs, and cultures are conserved through systems of socialization and control" ("Organizational Learning", in the Annual Review of Sociology, 1988).  This more abstract, and for that matter more collective, form of organizational memory is of particular interest.  How do organizations learn, and remember, and forget?  Is there organizational amnesia?

For introductions to the sociology of institutions and organizations (none of which make any particular mention of institutional memory), see:

See also Institutional Memory.



In the film American Beauty (1999), one of the characters, who is constantly recording the events around him on videotape, says "video is a poor excuse, I know, but it helps me to remember".  Since the invention of photography, photographers and critics have been concerned with the relationship between photography (in all its forms) and memory.  In fact, the relationship between a photograph and the thing it captures has always been problematic.  Henry Fox Talbot, an early photographer, described photography as " the art of fixing a shadow" and Henri Cartier-Bresson discussed "the decisive moment" which appears in all great photographs.  

A recent essay in the New York Times ("Memories Live in Ansel Adams Dreamscapes" by Sarah Boxer, September 1, 2001), on the occasion of an exhibit of photographs by Ansel Adams organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, discusses the role of memory in Adams' body of work (the problem of memory is also discussed by John Szarkowski, the exhibit curator, in a catalog essay).  While his contemporary Edward Weston thought that photography  captured "the thing itself", Adams believed instead that photographs represented the subjective feeling state of the photographer at the moment before the image was taken.  Even in Adams' earliest pictures, taken as a teenager at Yosemite with a Kodak Brownie, Szarkowski writes that "the snaps were memory aids; it was the memory that was the essential thing".  Later, as a professional, such sequences of near-identical pictures as those of Mount Robsin (1928) or of the California surf off San Mateo County (1940), appear to some critics to be successive attempts to represent a single memory.  Click here to read Boxer's article.

Memory is also relevant to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), whose photographs documented many of the 20th century's most momentous events.  Cartier-Bresson was well known for both formal portraits (e.g., of Matisse, Sartre, and Mahatma Gandhi minutes before his assassination), and photojournalism (as a member of the French Resistance during World War II, Cartier-Bresson documented the German occupation and withdrawal; after the war, with Robert Capa and others, he was a founder of Magnum Photos).  In both lines of work, Cartier-Bresson sought to capture "the decisive moment" (the usual translation of Images a la Sauvete, or "Images on the Run", the title of his 1952 book) -- "the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization of forms that give that event its proper expression".  Whereas Ansel Adams apparently reworked his photographs in the darkroom to represent his memory of his own emotional state, Cartier-Bresson generally refused even to develop his own pictures, attempting to capture the event itself -- true snapshots that, in his words sought to "'trap' life -- to preserve life in the act of living.  Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was unrolling before my eyes.  (Quotes from "Cartier-Bresson, Artist Who Used Lens, Dies at 95", by Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, 08/05/04).

The advent of digital photography, and the ability to upload "selfies" and other photos taken on one's cellphone to the internet to share with friends (and strangers) via services like Facebook and Twitter, has led some commentators to worry about the consequences of this widespread cultural practice for memory -- consequences that are both positive and negative -- much as Plato, in the Phaedrus, warned about the harm that the proliferation of writing would do.

If men learn this [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.  What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory,  but for reminder.
In an essay on "The End of Forgetting", Ben Rowen reflected on "the machinery of memory", and how photography altered nostalgia, which he defined as "a sentimental longing for bygone times" (The Atlantic, 06/2017).  He quotes Susan Sontag, in On Photography (1977), who wrote photographs "actively promote nostalgia... by slicing out [a] moment and freezing it".  On the other hand, he quotes Nancy M. West, author of Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000), that the production of cameras intended for amateurs "allowed people... to arrange their lives in such a way that painful or unpleasant aspects were systematically erased" -- I guess by not photographing them, or my destroying the pictures.  Rosen argues that, in the past, nostalgia was triggered spontaneously by certain environmental cues; but now, with such cues literally as close to hand as your cellphone, "we can experience nostalgia on demand".In fact, he suggests that we can trace a timeline of the machinery of memory, beginning with written artifacts such as diaries, and running through various advances in photography from the daguerrotype to the Kodak "Brownie" camera to home movies and home video to the GoPro camera and selfie stick, and ending, sometime in the not-to-distant futures, with the ability to digitally reconstruct our memories by reading patterns of brain activity.  Rowen suggests that "As technology gives gives us unprecedented access to our memories, might we yearn for the good old days when we forgot things?  He cites three such technological advances, which in his view lie not far in the future:

  1. 3-D technology will allow user to transform 2-D photographs into three-dimensional spaces, affording "the feeling of traveling through childhood landscapes".
  2. Virtual reality will allow users "to view a scene from the vantage point of a child rather than from that of a taller adult".
  3. New neuroscientific techiques (pioneered by UCB's own Prof. Jack Gallant) will allow us to record the activation patterns in the brain associated with particular memories, creating "backups of our memories".
For more on nostalgia, see Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource (2015) by Clay Routledge.

"No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget."
Sy Parrish (played by Robin Williams)
One Hour Photo (2002)


Postage Stamps as Collective Memories

Like coins and currency, postage stamps can be valuable archives of collective memory.  For example, in the run-up to the turn of the 21st century, the United States Postal Service issued issued a series of stamps, press sheets, and commemorative panels celebrating notable people, iconic objects, and major events of each decade of the 20th century -- the "Celebrate the Century" series of stamps.

For a good example of how collective memory is preserved in postage stamps, see An American History Album: The Story of the United States Told Through Stamps (2008) by Michael and Jordan Worek.  Quoting from the back cover:

Throughout its history, the United States has celebrated its achievements, honored its hereoes and recorded its history by issuing commemorative postage stamps.  These miniature works of art tell us abouot the diversity and settlement of the land; advances in transportation and communication; civil and foreign wars; and the accomplishments of the political, military and civic leaders who served the republic and shaped its future.

See also "The Culture of Stamps: Cultural Touchstones Are Vital to a Stamp's Purpose" by Thomas W. Broadhead (American Philatelist, 10/2016).  From their first paragraph:
Nations and their peoples define themselves by their history and culture, and geographic boundaries are only of secondary importance.  A single nation can be a mosaic of cultures, and larger nations predictably exhibit a diversity that can be amazingly great and also troubling.  The cultures of nations are displayed to the world through language, art forms, government systems, and technology.  They are the heritage, the DNA of nations.  All of these, in turn, find their ways as images on postage stamps.

Customized Stamps as Threats to Collective Memory

Nations, including the United Nations, print their own postage stamps -- stamps whose subjects, at least in principle, reflect the collective experience and history of the people of those nations.  However, beginning in 2004, Stamps.com, a commercial firm, offered to print personalized postage stamps with photos of customers' children, pets, vacation trips, or anything else ("Postage Stamp Pictures Not Just for Celebrities", by the Associated Press, Contra Costa Times, 08/11/04).  To the extent that this service catches on, and people begin to use their own "homemade" stamps instead of those issued by their government, we will lose this aspect of our collective, national memory. 

Apparently, the service has caught on.  After a hiatus following a trial period in 2004, in May 2005 the United States Postal Service once again authorized the production and sale of customized stamps -- which are, really, metered mail.  And with re-authorization came a debate over the merits of the service ("Vanity Postage" by Eric Wilson, New York Times, 12/22/05).  According to Wilson, the American Philatelist Society has endorsed the technology and is even developing a set of customized stamps to celebrate important events in postal history.  On the other hand, Robert Paul Reyes, a columnist for the Lynchburg (Virginia) Ledger, has decried customized stamps as "sacriligeous".   As quoted by Wilson, Reyes wrote that "Stamps are mirrors of societies.  They are a history of a nation.  When I look at people putting photos of their pet cats or grandchildren on a legal postage stamp, that trivializes them a bit".  

Link to Malcolm C. Dizer and "History in Philately"

Link to vendors: Stamps.com: www.photostamps.com; also Endicia.com; Zazzle.com.



            (43548 bytes)Marcel Proust's seven-volume A la Recherche du Tempes Perdu (1913-1927) is of course the classic literary treatment of memory.  While drinking tea with his mother, the taste of a madeleine, a sweet tea-cookie, brings back memories of Marcel's childhood in Combray.  Originally translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff for the Modern Library as Remembrance of Things Past (Montcrieff's translation was revised by Terence Kilmartin and then by D.J. Enright), a new translation, published by Viking and based on a new French edition published by Pleiade, has appeared as In Search of Lost Time.

Of this title change, Andre Aciman writes:  

[D.J.]Enright had made "cosmetic" changes to Scott Moncrieff's Remembrance of Things Past and changed its title to In Search of Lost Time, this, of course, being an exact translation of the French.  Conversely, however, Remembrance of Things Past, derived from Shakespeare's Sonnet 30, was a good enough title, and changing it was like deciding to change the title of the Book of Genesis to In the Beginning ("Far from Proust's Way", New York Review of Books, 12/15/05).

The individual volumes are (in Moncreiff's translation):

In 2013, the centennial of the publication of Swann's Way was celebrated by a number of marathon readings of the novel, modeled after the marathon readings of James Joyce's Ulysses every "Bloomsday" (June 16).  See "More to Remember than Just the Madeleine" by Fennifer Schuessler, New York Times, 11/08/2013.

For more readings on Proust and A la Recherche:

Proust's Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time by Roger Shattuck (2000). An earlier book, Proust's Binoculars,(1963), "explored Mr. Shattuck's belief that an event, originally fleeting and meaningless, may later by some reflex be recalled and seen, this time in true focus, as with binoculars" (from Shattuck's obituary by Douglas Martin, New York Times, 12/10/05).    

The Proust Project, edited by Andre Aciman.  (Farrar Straus Giroux/Turtle Point Press, 2004) contains, among other entries, an essay by Shirley Hazzard explaining how Proust's work got its new English title.  Aciman reviewed two recent biographies of Proust in the New York Review of Books ("Proust Regained", 07/18/02).

"Cognitive Realism and Memory in Proust's Madeleine Episode" by Emily T. TrosciankoMemory Studies 6(4), 437-456 (2013).



When two (or more, I suppose) people enter into a relationship, they begin to acquire each other's memories; and when they separate, as in divorce, each partner begins to acquire a store of memories that is no longer shared with the other (and may be shared with someone else).  During their time together, of course, couples acquire a fund of shared memories.  But one person's memory of an event can differ from another's, and even in the closest of relationships these memories can become contested ground.

Consider the song, "I Remember It Well", from the film Gigi (1958), directed by Vincente Minnelli from a story by Collette:


We met at nine.

I was on time.

Ah yes! I remember it well.



We met at eight.

No, you were late.



We dined with friends

A tenor sang.

A yes! I remember it well.


We dined alone.

A baritone.



That dazzling April moon!



There was none that night,

And the month was June.


That's right!  That's right!  
  It warms my heart to know that

you remember still the way you do


Ah yes! I remember it well.


How I've often thought of that Friday night, 

when we had our last rendez-vous.

And somehow I've foolishly wondered

if you might by some chance be thinking of it too?







That carriage ride.

You lost a glove

A yes! I remember it well.


You walked me home.

I lost a comb.



That brilliant sky.

Those Russian songs.

Ah yes! I remember it well.


We had some rain.

From sunny Spain



You wore a gown of gold.

Am I getting old?


I was all in blue.

Oh no!  Not you!


  How strong you were,

how young and gay;

A prince of love in every way.


Ah yes! I remember it well.  
  Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

Tune by Frederick Lowe



Remembrance Day (aka Veterans Day)

The run-up to the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I led to a number of commentaries on Remembrance Day (as it is called in the United Kingdom) or Veterans Day (as it is known in the United States).  Originally dedicated to remembering those who fell in World War I, both holidays now commemorate all their respective countries' war dead.  One result is, in the words of Hew Strachan, "On Remembrance Day we're not actually remembering anything" (quoted by Bagehot, "We Misremember Them", Economist, 11/09/2013).


Family and school reunions are obvious opportunities for the building and sharing of collective memories -- and, especially in the case of family reunions, passing them on to the next generation.  "While there are no reliable statistics on how many families have reunions each year, there are plenty of indicators that such events are proliferating and becoming increasingly elaborate affairs" (Tamar Lewin in "Remembering the Past, Celebrating the Future", New York Times, 08/13/04).  Lewin further notes that at least nine handbooks on reunion planning are in print, and cites a 2002 pool by the Travel Industry Association of America that found that 1/3 of American adults had traveled to a family reunion in the last 3 years, and nearly 1/4 had attended a reunion in the past year.  

Within the African-American community, an upsurge of reunion activity in the 1970s and 1980s seems to have been sparked by publication of Alex Haley's Roots.  

Reunions may differ from other family get-togethers, such as weddings and funerals, because they focus primarily on sharing memories (this is a researchable topic; memories are shared at weddings and funerals, to be sure, but these memories chiefly concern only one or two of those present).  But many reunions are also acts of collective memory in and of themselves.  For example, a family's reunion may not take place an a location that has been selected arbitrarily, or for convenience, but because the reunion location has some special significance for family members -- for example, where the family patriarch or matriarch was born or worked, the site of the family homestead, etc.

Among recent books concerned with reunion planning are:

At Temple University, Prof. Ione Vargus of the School of Social Administration has established a Family Reunion Institute (http://www.temple.edu/fri/family reunion) to promote reunions as a means of preserving and strengthening the extended family.

A Right to be Forgotten?

We're always being warned that whatever we put out on the Internet will follow us forever -- much to the later chagrin of youth who, for example, post pictures of themselves at drunken orgies on Facebook and then apply for jobs on Wall Street.  But now there's hope.  In 2014, the European Court of Justice, the highest judicial body in the European Union, has ruled that people have a "right to be forgotten".  In a landmark case, a Spanish lawyer brought a suit against Google because an internet search on his name brought up a newspaper account of an embarrassing lawsuit.  Because the case had long since been resolved, the lawyer argued that the link -- though not the newspaper article itself, of course, ought to be expunged.  The ECJ agreed that individuals can petition database operators like Google to remove links that are "inadequate, irrelevant... or excessive", so long as there is no public interest in the information being linked (as there no longer was in this case).  The request to delete links to personal information is roughly analogous to requests to delete images of oneself or one's homeSearch firms can refuse, however, in which case the individual can appeal confined to his or her local data-protection authority, and ultimately to the courts.   

Aside from practical questions about how to do this (anybody know the "local data-protection authority" is in the US?), there are interesting policy and psychological issues.  For example, there is the argument that search firms like Google should be neutral with respect to content.  If there's a URL out there, their search engines ought to be able to find it.  And, if somebody runs for public office, for example, perhaps voters should have access to all relevant information, so that they can make judgments for themselves.  Additionally, there is the argument that it's one thing to forgive the past, it's another thing entirely to forget it, or to try to suppress the memory.  That way leads down Orwell's memory hole.

R.I.P. Shirts

In the 1990s, "R.I.P. shirts", T-shirts featuring photographs of deceased friends or family members, began to appear on the streets of Oakland, California -- a city with a high rate of homicide (114 in 2003), especially among minority youth ("R.I.P. Shirts Become an Urban Tradition" by Meredith May, San Francisco Chronicle, 10/24/04).  By 2004, the shirts had spawned a thriving cottage industry in Oakland, with families ordering them in bulk to be distributed at funerals.  The tradition has branched out to include sweatshirts and jeans. By 2006, the trend had expanded to other East Bay cities, such as Richmond ("Airbrush Business Thrives on Richmond's Death Rate" by Ben Hubbard, West County Times, 10/08/06).

R.I.P. shirts may have had their origin in the shirts worn in New Orleans funeral processions; on the other hand, Ronald Barrett, an authority on African-American funeral practices, has suggested that they may be derived from scarves or handkerchiefs worn to funerals in the Caribbean.  In any event, they are now especially popular among black urban youth.  According to Barrett, "R.I.P. is a way of establishing significant linkings with the deceased and the shirts give people something tangible they can hold onto".  In this respect, they seem to play a role similar to the offrendas and descansos familiar in Latin-American culture.  


Roadside Crosses (Descansos)

See Descansos, Offrendas, R.I.P.Shirts.


Scholarly Journals

Articles on memory are published constantly in the basic general psychology journals, such as the American Psychologist, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Psychological Bulletin, Psychological Review, Psychological Science, and Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.  Here is a listing of specialty journals devoted to the study of memory.


Scooter Libby's Memory

In January 2007, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, former chief of staff to Vice-President Richard Cheyney, went on trial on federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to the "Valerie Plame" affair.  Libby is charged with lying to federal agents and a grand jury when he said that he had been told by reporters that Ms. Plame was an undercover operative of the Central Intelligence Agency.  While the prosecution charges that Libby had learned of Ms. Plame's identity from White House sources.  Libby's defense, in part, is that he simply forgot, with everything else that was going on in the run-up to the Second Iraq War, what the source of his information was.  The prosecution, for its part, presented witnesses who testified as to their recollections of when Libby learned of Plame's identity -- memories that are not easily corroborated, and which in some cases were "recovered" after a long period of forgetting.  Thus, in a sense, the trial becomes another episode in the Memory Wars, in that much of the testimony and argument centers on issues of memory -- the nature of remembering and forgetting, and whether one can recover a long-forgotten memory. Even the voir dire process of jury selection included questions about prospective jurors' knowledge and beliefs concerning memory.  Although there were rumors of memory experts set to testify for both sides, in the end the trial was a straightforward presentation of witnesses whose courtroom testimony contradicted Libby's statements to investigators and the grand jury (on cross-examination, the defense sought to undermine the witnesses' own memories.  Libby did not testify in his own behalf, though the jurors did hear a tape recording of his grand jury testimony, in which he argued that his workload led him to forget certain events.  In the end, the jury was persuaded that it simply was not possible to forget each and every one of nine different conversations about Plame, with eight different individuals.

The trial is detailed in a series of articles in the New York Times beginning on January 24, 2007.  For a post-trial analysis, see "Prosecution by Logic Defeats a Defense in Shades of Gray" by Scott Shane (New York Times, 030707).



Scrapbooks comprise much of the "material culture" of personal memory: they contain memorabilia of all sorts, and photographs of people and occasions that are important in the individual's life.  In this sense, they are the "analog", nonverbal form of a diary or journal.  Michele Gerbrandt, edits Memory Maker, a magazine devoted to "scrapbooking" that began in 1996.  In Scrapbook Basics: The Complete Guide to Preserving Your Memories (Memory Makers Books, 2002), Gerbrandt suggests that scrapbooks have their origins in the "commonplace books" in which people collected literary passages, quotations, ideas, and observations for personal reflection.  She reports that in 1709, the British philosopher John Locke (posthumously) published a New Method of Making Common-Place Books (sometimes included in editions of Locke's 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding).  The common-place book eventually evolved into the modern scrap-book.  In 1872 Mark Twain, who owned a publishing firm, marketed a "self-pasting" scrap book.  Scrapbooks document personal and family histories, and record experiences, good and bad, for later reflection.  Many personal websites, not to mention weblogs (or "blogs"), have a certain "scrapbook" quality.  Even this one.

May 1, 2004, was designated National Scrapbooking Day (by whom, I don't know).  According to Joan Morris, "Marketing experts estimate that there are more than 25 million serious scrapbookers in this country.  Andin less than a decade, those millions have turned a modest hobby into a $2.5 billion industry that shows no signs of abating "Scrap It!  Hobby Combines Art, Family, History, Love", Contra Costa County Times, 05/01/04).  Morris attributes part of the rise of scrapbooking to members of the Mormon Church, who seek "to record and preserve the memories of their ancestors" as they create the genealogies required by their faith.  

The "Memory Maker Photo Bracelet, produced by Key Item Sales, a jewelry company, is a sort of "wearable scrapbook" that permits the wearer to share family photos without having to lug around an entire scrapbook (see "The Bracelet is a Highlight Reel of Your Family Scrapbook to Show Others in the Here and Now" by Rob Walker, New York Times Magazine, 04/04/04).  

In 2005, the AARP (aka the American Association of Retired Persons) published For My Grandchild: A Grandmother's Gift of Memory (AARP/Sterling), providing a scrapbook-like format for grandparents to document their lives for their grandchildren, creating a repository for the collective memory of a family.

See also:

The Six-Word Memoir Project

According to a (possibly apocryphal) story, Ernest Hemingway, always a terse writer to begin with, once wrote a short story in only six words:

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Inspired by the story, Smith (as in wordsmith), a magazine dedicated to the proposition that "Everyone has a story, and everyone needs a place to tell it", initiated the Six-Word Memoir Project, inviting readers to contribute six-word memoirs. the "microblogging" project began in November 2006, and has since generated a number of books, including Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak, Six-Word Memoirs by Teens, and It All Changed in An Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure.

Holiday-season game lists for 2011 included Six-Word Memoirs as a board game (University): players must give six-word clues to targets representing people, places, and things.

Link to a page devoted to memoir as a literary genre.


Social Relationships

Memory is so wrapped up in relationships. Couples frequently treasure, and share, the story of the first time they met.  When we become involved with someone, one of the measures of our involvement is how much we share their memories (and vice-versa). When you marry, you start sharing your in-laws' collective memories, and when you divorce there is a kind of anterograde amnesia. So many disputes in relationships are over memory: claims and counterclaims about what someone did, or didn't do, avowals and denials; failures of memory (like anniversaries); and the inability to forget insults, mistakes, and indiscretions. There's a lot that would be of interest here, but unfortunately very little empirical work on this subject.  someone should do a study.


Superior Autobiographical Memory

Profs. James McGaugh and Larry Cahill of the University of California, Irvine, have announced the discovery of a small group of individuals who have exceptional autobiographical memory -- call them superretrieversLink to a segment of the CBS News program 60 Minutes, describing their findings.  The discovery of such individuals has been characterized as a "game-changer" with respect to our understanding of memory, but I'm not so sure.  A lot depends on what game is being played.

The discovery of memory savants isn't exactly new. There was Luria's S., of course, described in his book, the Mind of a Mnemonist (subtitle: A Little Book about a Big Memory), and the subject studied by Hunt & Love (1972). Most mnemonists have been tested on what we would now call semantic memory, but I think there's no a priori reason why savantitude (?) couldn't be displayed in episodic memory as well.

There are only just a few of these folks. McGaugh and Cahill have tested six, and then there was the one who didn't want to be publicized. At one point Cahill said that these folks were 6-7 standard deviations above the mean on a test the developed for this purpose, but with 6 billion people on God's Green Earth it's not surprising that there are six or seven with memories like this within spitting distance of UC Irvine. California has 38 million people, as of the 2010 census, so just by the probabilities (assuming 6 SDs out, and applying the "six sigma rule") we'd expect to find about 129 such individuals in this state alone). Now, I'd be the last person in the world to discount the theoretical importance of interesting cases, but it shouldn't surprise us, given the normal distribution, that there are some people out there with extraordinary abilities in the domain of memory.

There are a few people out there with eidetic imagery, and some with perfect pitch, and some are supertasters. Nobody claims that the existence of such individuals will "recast our notion of how [vision, or hearing, or gustation] works".

Note that the savants who get so much attention are the "Rain Man" types, who are autistic, or retarded, but have some extraordinary ability. It's the distinctiveness of the extraordinary ability, against a background of disability ("They can't tie their shoes"), that draws our attention and wonder. But there's no a priori reason why extraordinary abilities can't occur in people who are otherwise of "normal" ability. We just don't notice them, because the contrast isn't so great. And also because they don't always display their mnemonic talent. The interviews in Part 2 of the 60 Minutes segment were quite interesting in that respect: it became clear that while these folks can, apparently, remember everything, they don't necessarily report everything to everybody they meet. Nor, apparently, do they even remember everything, privately, all the time. They can regulate both the retrieval and reporting of their memories, so they can entertain people at cocktail parties but still not act like jerks on the first date.

With respect to psychological theory, McGaugh said that "we thought we knew how memory works", implying that these individuals tell us that we don't know how memory works, but I don't think that's the case. All of these subjects were really good at organizing their memories, and -- at least when I teach about memory -- "The Organization Principle" is one of the 7 plus or minus 2 principles that I use to describe how memory works. Organizational theory got swept aside in the enthusiasm for depth-of-processing, but there's a big difference between elaborative and organizational activity, and these people are really good at organizing their memories. Now, they also appeared to have a proclivity for organizing other things as well, maybe bordering on the obsessive-compulsive. But the fact that they're obsessive and compulsive about their memories, and organize them more than the rest of us do, and capitalize on that organization to retrieve memories, doesn't tell us anything about memory that we hadn't known since Bousfield's discovery of category clustering, and his demonstration that it couldn't be accounted for by interitem associations.

With respect to the neural substrates of memory (which, remember, I don't think of as a question for psychological theory), I think that the most revealing comment came from Cahill, who said he didn't expect to find anything. He didn't expect to find anything, but his first instinct was to throw Marilu Henner (one of their superretrievers) into an MRI. What they found, apparently, was that these superretrievers had big temporal lobes and big caudate nuclei. Given what we know about the "medial temporal lobe memory system", how come he didn't predict that they'd have big temporal lobes?  Presumably because he doesn't really think that memories are stored in the temporal lobes, and he's probably right not to think that. So what could it possibly mean that the superretrievers have big ones? Now, if the MTL serves a kind of indexing function, and the caudate nucleus serves to direct information processing, the findings might make sense. But if we really believed this, why wouldn't we have predicted this finding in advance?

But let's just accept the finding at face value. The really interesting response to all of this was by McGaugh, who posed the chicken-and-egg problem: do these people have big memories because they have big temporal lobes, or do they have big temporal lobes because they have big memories? Now there's an interesting question, and it would be nice if people asked it more often. Maybe the exercise involved in organizing all those memories has led to denser interconnections in these structures, and also led them to "capture" adjacent neural territory. We'll never know, of course, but here's another instance where the interpretation of neuroimaging data depend utterly on the prior availability of a valid psychological theory of the process.

As I am all-too-fond of saying, "Psychology without neuroscience is still the science of the mind, but neuroscience without psychology is just the science of neurons".

Frankly, given McGaugh & Cahill's pioneering work emotion and memory, I would have taken a different tack, and looked at the role of adrenalin in making people superretrievers. Perhaps they've got naturally higher levels of adrenalin (or epinephrine) flowing, which leads them to encode memories better without even trying. Or maybe, setting aside memories for emotional events, injections of adrenalin would lead anyone to become a superretriever. I don't have any investment in this hypothesis, but given their prior research on adrenalin and beta-blockers, I would have thought that hormones would have been the first place to look, not images of brain structure.

Transient Global Amnesia

A first-person account of this syndrome appeared in "A Brief Vacation From Myself" by tom Fields-Meyer (New York Times Magazine, 09/01/2013). 

    Your accumulated memories make you who you are -- how terrifying is it that they can simply vanish.  What do you become then?


The trauma-memory argument proposes that memories of childhood and other traumas can affect adult behavior outside awareness, and that such unconscious memories can return to awareness even after long delays -- a situation which recovered memory therapy is intended to foster. Unfortunately, both the argument and the therapy are based on case reports of unknown representativeness, and clinical studies which are methodologically flawed or do not consider alternative explanations.  Of particular concern is the general lack of independent verification of the ostensibly forgotten memories. As a result of the unwarranted inference of past trauma, and the "recovery" of traumatic memories of doubtful provenance, considerable damage has been done to individual patients and their families, and to clinical psychology as a profession, and the practice of psychotherapy at large. The trauma-memory argument is plausible, in at least some respects, given what we know about the processes of remembering and forgetting; but considerably more empirical research is needed before it can serve as a basis for scientifically sound clinical practice.  In a series of articles, some co-authored with Dr. Katharine Krause Shobe, I have attempted a scientific critique of both the idea that trauma causes amnesia, and of therapeutic attempts to recover traumatic memories.  In fact, it was the convergence of processes -- cognitive and emotional, personal and social -- in the controversy over traumatic and recovered memories that led to my wider interest in promoting the connection between psychology and the other social sciences in the study of the "human ecology" of memory.

Link to a series of papers on the trauma-memory argument and recovered-memory therapy.


Tweets (and Twitter)

See also Diary, Facebook, Weblogs.


Urban Legends

Urban legends have something of the character of collective memory.  We hear a story that "someone told my uncle" or "happened in another city", and pretty soon this story -- whether about alligators in city sewers rats in soft-drink bottles --  -- spreads across the culture -- these days, of course, promoted by the Internet.  are compelling, believable, and entirely false.  Still, a story that starts out as rumor, gossip, or imagination is passed on by people who believe it to be true, until it becomes a widely shared narrative -- a collective memory of something that never happened.  Urban legends are a subcategory of the memes described by the biologist Richard Dawkins.  

See the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends compiled by Jan Harold Brunwand (Norton, 2001).

Link to a short essay on urban legends as collective memories.

Veterans Day (aka Remembrance Day)

The run-up to the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I led to a number of commentaries on Remembrance Day (as it is called in the United Kingdom) or Veterans Day (as it is known in the United States).  Originally dedicated to remembering those who fell in World War I, both holidays now commemorate all their respective countries' war dead.  One result is, in the words of Hew Strachan, "On Remembrance Day we're not actually remembering anything" (quoted by Bagehot, "We Misremember Them", Economist, 11/09/2013).

Vietnam in Collective Memory

During the period of the Vietnam war, there were frequent stories of returning Vietnam veterans being spit on by antiwar activists.  The stories persist to this day.  However, Jerry Lembke, himself a Vietnam veteran, investigated the claim thoroughly and failed to document even a single convincing case (The Spitting Image, 1998).  Lembke concluded that the story was a "mythical projection" by people who felt abandoned and despised -- spat upon -- by the antiwar movement and b the coutnry at large.

Similarly, many returning prisoners of war told of being visited by Jane Fonda during her 1972 visit to Hanoi, and even that she participated in their torture -- even though Fonda's only encounter with POWs was a public photo-opportunity, and historians agree that torture of POWs ended by 1969.  For essays on the persistence of such stories, see "You Gotta Love Her" by Tom Hayden (Fonda's ex-husband), and "Why They Love to Hate Her" by Carol Burke (both in The Nation, 03/22/04).

An excellent account of the construction of Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial in Washingto, D.C., is A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial b James Reston Jr. (2017).


Weblogs (Blogs)

The 09/30/03 edition of the Wall Street Journal contains a review by Reed Albergotti of commercial software provided by internet service providers such as AOL that can be used to set up a weblog.

See also Diary, Facebook, Tweets.


"What the Hell's It Good for?"

A symposium at a recent conference of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition asked Alan Baddeley's famous question of autobiographical memory.

Here's one answer, from J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan: God gave us memory so that we might can have roses in December (rectorial address at St. Andrew's, May 3, 1922, in the Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations).  

Here's another, with a nod to Santayana: We have autobiographical memory so we can remember our past, and not repeat it.


World Trade Center Memorial

Remnants of the facade of the World Trade Center,   following the events of September 11, 2001.  

Photograph by Gary Miller, New York Post/Rex, in The New Yorker, 09/24/01.

Almost from the moment that the World Trade Center fell, on September 11, 2001, it has been clear that there would be some kind of memorial to the attacks, and their victims, on the site.  But there has been considerable controversy over the nature of that memorial.  Many people favor something abstract, along the lines of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  The rules for the memorial competition require not just that the event be memorialized, but that each victim be remembered by name. Representatives of "first responders" have insisted that there be some human representation of the firefighters and others who died in the attempt to rescue victims.  

In December 2003 eight finalists (most with some cognate of the word memory in their titles) in the memorial competition were chosen from 5,201 submissions, but none of them generated much positive reaction from outside critics.  The memorial proposals -- indeed, the entire process surrounding the WTC memorial - was included in Herbert Muschamp's year-end listing of "The Lows" in Architecture for 2003 ("Banner Year for Lost Opportunities", New York Times, 12/28/03).  (Personally, I find Daniel Libeskind's design for Freedom Tower, with its symbolic height of 1,776 feet and its reference to the Statue of Liberty, not to mention its very name, an unfortunate exercise in jingoism -- nothwithstanding the fact that Libeskind himself is German.)

In their year-end comments on "The Lows" in art for the year 2003, Michael Kimmelman, Roberta Smith, and Holland Carter had the following exchange ("Rushed Memorials and Show Bloat", New York Times, 12/28/03):

Smith ...But the biggest disappointment has been watching what's going on at ground zero, with starts with a bad building.  It's as if the various selection processes have been hijacked.

Kimmelman And hurried.  There is one kind of pressure to build buildings, another to build a memorial, which is based on assumptions that may not necessarily be true.  For instance, that the site has to serve some role as a cemetery, or that we need to have something quickly.

Smith I agree that speed is the main problem.  But it's a unique place because a lot of people died there, and they weren't recovered.  So it has a particular charge.

Kimmelman Clearly something has to be done on that site, but why do it precipitately, notwithstanding that there are remains there and that survivors wish it? We live in a culture that seems to be more about moving on than about taking our time.  And so what they're doing is more about forgetting than remembering; it's about getting something done so it seems like we've accomplished something and don't have to thin about it anymore.

Cotter Don't similar issues revolve around Holocaust memorials?  Like what is appropriate -- what can be big enough to address this event?

Kimmelman The Holocaust is now more than a half a century old, and the Holocaust Museum in New York opened only a few years ago.  Ground zero was two years ago, and we're rushing along this process as if it needed to be finished quickly.  

Smith On ground zero I would rather just wait.

Cotter Yes, I'm in no rush.  Just let it be as it is for the moment until people think some more.

Kimmelman So maybe the whole development process of the site needs to be reconsidered, not just the memorial.

As Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the New Yorker, put it ("Memories", New Yorker, 12/08/03):

One of the best ideas proposed after September 11th was to preserve the twisted and burned shards of steel from the facade of the Twin Towers, but that seems to have been forgotten, as f these relics were too specific, or too painful.  We have opted instead for designs that could be commemorating any sadness, not the particular horror of the World Trade Center disaster, and most of them have the bland earnestness of a well-designed public plaza.

Goldberger's comment was prophetic.  In 2011, for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, pieces of twisted steel from the WTC site were shipped around the country and across the world to form part of individual 9/11 memorials.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum opened at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan in 2014.  Adam Gopnik wrote a review of the Museum, with notes on other memorials (including Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, and on civic memorials in general, in the July 7-14, 2014, issue of the New Yorker:

The site contains more contradictions, unresolved and perhaps unresolvable, than any other eight acres in Manhattan.  A celebration of liberty tightly policed; a cemetery that cowers in the shadow of commerce; an insistence that we are her to remember and an ambition to let us tell you what to recall; the boast that we have completely started over and the promise that we will never forget -- visitors experience these things with a free-floating unease. 

The events of 9/11 have been commemorated every year, featuring a reading of the names of the victims. 

Every September 11, a whole lot of remembering goes on, raising the question of how long this will last.  I'm old enough to remember when Pearl Harbor Day, and V-E and V-J Days, were still on the calendars (they're pretty much gone now); and when Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War  (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) was transformed into Veterans Day, honoring the veterans of all our nation's wars.

So, one wonders how long the memorialization of 9/11 will last.  In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, published on the 10th anniversary, made an interesting and provocative point:

On that fateful morning I was in the South Tower above the 90th floor.  I escaped without injury, but 13 of my colleagues lost their lives. I have been living with the memories of that day, just as I have been living with memories of the Holocaust.  But enough is enough! 

When will we stop this nonstop memorializing? Ten years have passed and the reconstruction on the World Trade Center site has barely begun. Ten years after World War II Europe was largely rebuilt.

I know families who lost loved ones, and all they ask for is that they stop being reminded constantly about what happened.  A quiet and tasteful memorial for first responders and victims should be enough.  It is time to close the door on the event and let the survivors live our normal lives.

Eviatar Zerubavel has written cogently about national calendars, what they celebrate, and how dates and events go on and drop off them.  One wonders when 9/11will go the way of Armistice Day, V-E Day, and V-J Day.

This page last updated 11/17/2017.