“Is Memory in the Brain?”

Most of us think of memory as something that goes on exclusively in our brains, but alongside of efforts to view cognition in general as an embodied and extended activity, some researchers have been arguing that memory also has a socially extended dimension.  David Manier is among those pushing our understanding of memory so as to encompass acts of social communication as remembering.

Manier’s 2004 article, “Is Memory in the Brain?  Remembering as Social Behavior,” published in Mind, Culture, and Activity seeks to establish social remembering as a legitimate and significant area of study for cognitive psychologists.  In order to this, Manier begins by challenging the dominant understanding of memory which construes memory as something located in the brain or as a faculty housed exclusively in the brain.

“Historians, anthropologists, and sociologists, often influenced by Halbwachs (1950/1980), have taken up the topic of collective memory, looking at ways that organizations preserve important aspects of the past, and ways that events of weighty historical importance (such as the Holocaust) become integrated into the collective identity of a group of people …. But among some psychologists, especially those whose emphasis is on neuroscientific approaches to memory, it is possible to detect a certain ambivalence toward this topic.” (251)

Manier intends to argue instead, “for the usefulness of conceptualizing remembering as social behavior, and for expanding the science of memory to include communicative acts.” (252)  Manier and his colleagues have conducted a number of studies into what he terms conversational remembering.  These studies take place in “naturalistic contexts,” that is everyday environments as opposed to the contrived laboratory environment in which most cognitive scientific research takes place.  Thus far, Manier’s studies suggest that the dynamics of social remembering shape the subsequent remembering of individual group members.

Manier briefly traces the history of the belief, most recently articulated by Tulving, that memory “has a home, even if still a hidden one, in the brain” back past recent neuroscientific discoveries to ancient Greece.  Plato operated with what Cropsey has termed an “obstetrical metaphor” according to which “the purpose of philosophy is to serve as a ‘midwife’ to the birth of ideas having germinal existence within the soul; in this sense, Plato saw knowing as involving an act of remembering.”  Thus memory was not conceived as mere storage of information, nor simply as a brain function, but “rather more like a journey, a quest in which conversations with a philosopher … can play a crucial role.”  (253)

According to Manier, this more conversational, dialogical, social conception of memory was displaced by Aristotle’s “emphasis on taxonomy” and his division of the soul into four faculties: the nutritive, the sensory, the locomotive, and the rational.  Memory, associated with imagination, was understood as a function of the sensory faculty through which one perceived images of things past.  While Aristotle did not maintain that what he had distinguished in theory was in fact distinguishable in reality, others who came after him where not so precise.  In Manier’s brief sketch, the notion of memory as a faculty located in the brain evolves through the Medieval heirs of Aristotle, to Locke, Thomas Reid, and then on to Gall and Spurzheim (founders of phrenology), Fechner, and Ebbinghaus.  (253-254)

Certain metaphors have also reinforced this “modular or topographical” view of memory:

“Often, the metaphors have been influenced by discussions of anatomy and physiology (… ‘the mental organ’ of language production – discussed by Chomsky …).  Moreover, the industrial revolution, with its production of heavy machinery, lent weight to an emphasis on metaphors about psychological ‘mechanisms.’  The development of computers spawned a host of new metaphors for cognitive psychology, including information processing, hardware and software, systems and subsystems, control processes, input and output, the computational architecture of mind, parallel distributed processing, …. (254)

Against the “mental topography” approach, Neisser has called for “ecological validity” which “asserts the imperative of understanding ‘everyday thinking’ rather than the study (preferred by many experimental psychologists) of how isolated individuals perform on contrived experiments conducted in carefully controlled laboratory settings.” (255)  Following Bruner, Manier goes on to characterize remembering as an “act of meaning” adding, “memory is something that we as humans do, that is, it is a meaningful action we perform in the sociocultural contexts that we take part in creating, and within which we live.”  Furthermore, “If it is correct to say that memory is something we do rather than something we have, it may be more appropriate to think of remembering as a kind of cognitive behavior ….” (256)

Now Manier articulates his chief claim, “remembering can be viewed as an act of communication.”  (257)  He aligns his claim with Gilbert Ryles’ earlier argument against the “tendency to view silent thoughts as somehow real thoughts, as opposed to the thoughts that we speak aloud.  By analogy, Manier suggests that not all remembering is silent remembering, and he offers the following definition:  “Remembering is a present communication of something past.”  He goes on to give various examples, all of which constitute acts of remembering:  solitary, private remembering; remembering in conversation with someone; and remembering through writing.  Each example was a remembrance of the same event, but each situation shifted what was remembered.  (258)

While some may argue that behind acts of remembrance there lays one’s “real memory” physically located in the brain, Manier suggests that the “neurophysiological configuration” is “only the material basis for real acts of remembering.”  Furthermore,

“This view of acts of remembering accords with the concept of distributed cognition, according to which we humans use the cultural tools that are available to us.  As Dennet, announced … we no more think with our brains than we hammer with our bare hands. And one of the important cultural tools we use in our thinking – and especially in our remembering – is group conversation.” (260)

Manier then provides a transcription of a family group conversation to illustrate how memories shift through the give and take of conversation, memories that presumably would not have been altered otherwise.  He concludes,

“Remembering is not only shaped by internal, cognitive processes.  When we reconstruct past events in the context of conversation, the conversational roles that are adopted by group members will affect what is remembered.  Moreover, conversational remembering can be shaped by other influences.  These influences on remembering – as well as a host of other sociocultural facts – tend to be missed by an approach that limits itself to what goes on in the brain.”

Manier, David.  “Is Memory in the Brain? Remembering as Social Behavior” in Mind, Culture, and Activity, 11(4), 251-266.  2004.

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