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Maria Janina Vitale
James der Derian
The mediality of human memory
Engrams and exograms
The film Blade Runner (1982) is about memory. It is set in the year 2028, when genetic technology has been employed for some time to create “replicants”, auxiliary beings with remarkable physical powers designed for work on other planets. Replicants are unaware that they were created in the laboratory, as they have been equipped with an autobiographical memory. They can talk about their past and carry around photographs of their fictitious childhood. They are beings with no past or future because their rigidly programmed life span is restricted to a few years. Individual replicants succeed every so often in penetrating the mystery that shrouds their precarious existence. Special detectives called Blade Runners are trained to identify these cases. Using special techniques of interviewing and observation, Blade Runners can detect whether they are dealing with a human being or with a replicant that must be “retired”. Deckard is a Blade Runner and Rachel is the personal assistant of Tyrell, the father of genetic engineering and head of the replicant-producing Tyrell Company. Rachel is afraid that she might be a replicant and goes to see Deckard in the hope of obtaining reassurance about her human nature. The following dialogue takes place during their meeting:
Rachel: You think I am a replicant, don’t you. (Shows him a photo) Look, it’s me with my mother.
Deckard: Yah! Remember when you were six? You and your brother sneaked into an empty building through the basement window, you were gonna play doctor. He showed you his and when it was your turn you run away. Do you remember this? Did anybody tell you that? Your mother? Tyrell? Do you remember the spider living in a bush outside your window, orange body, green legs? You watched it build a web all summer, and one day there was a big egg in it. The egg hatched…
Rachel: … the egg hatched and hundreds of baby spiders came out, and they ate her.
Deckard: Implants. Those are actually memories of somebody else. Of Tyrell’s niece’s.
Rachel: (Starts crying)
The strategy Deckard uses to prove that Rachel is a replicant is simple and deadly: he relates her memories of the past. Suffice it to imagine what it would be like to hear a stranger recount the most secret details of our existence, displaying a knowledge of us as great as our own. Rachel sees the foundations of what she had previously believed to be her life collapse and gives in to the weight of evidence when she completes the anecdote begun by Deckard. As the detective coldly concludes, Rachel’s life is not one she has actually lived and her memories are implants. They belong to someone else. She starts crying.
This short dialogue clearly shows the basis of autobiographical memory: not lived experiences codified by the neuronal system in the form of synapses but content accepted and endorsed by the social environment within the vast set of personal experiences. Memories that cannot be shared are no longer such. It is necessary for other human beings to provide constant confirmation that a subject’s store of memories corresponds to the memories of his or her social environment. External sources of memory play a key role in all this, which is why Rachel shows photographs of herself as a child. This phenomenon is connected with another interesting point. Autobiographical memory depends not only on social authentication but also and to an extraordinarily great extent on external sources, data and markers that are not limited to people but comprise a whole variety of mnemonic archives. In other words, autobiographical memory works not only inside the organism but also and above all outside it. Many contents of memory are located outside the neuronal network.
Neuro-scientific research into memory uses the term “engrams” for the functions of neuron activation connected with a representation or memory. Engrams represent, so to speak, the traces of all our lived experiences. The term “exograms” instead refers to any data of external memory whatsoever that are used in order to respond to the needs of a particular moment and develop strategies of action for the future. The content in this case can be written, oral, symbolic, objective, musical, habitual and so on. In short, this is content of any kind that can be developed as a tool of orientation (such as language) or used just as it is (like the starry sky for navigation). A sort of instantaneous quantum leap to exogram status takes place every time it is called up and used by a subject in the form of external memory data.
Unlike engrams, exograms are permanent, which means that they stretch beyond the temporal and spatial limits of the life of an individual and the horizon of personal experience. In evolutionary terms, the crucial step in human phylogenesis must be identified as the creation of symbols, since these, as Merlin Donald has shown, increase the human cognitive potential of extraordinarily powerful memory archives, where the greatest degree of differentiation is between the storability characteristics of engrams and exograms. While the former are “impermanent, small, hard to refine, impossible to display to awareness for any length of time, and difficult to locate and recall”, the latter are “stable, permanent, virtually unlimited memory records that are infinitely reformattable” and accessible to consciousness (Donald 2001, pp. 309 ff.). Exograms can also be retrieved with ease through a variety of possible procedures. Human consciousness therefore has two systems of representation, one internal and one external, while all the other living beings have only the internal system of representation at their disposal.
Memory thus preserves and represents not only the traces of objective events but also and above all the traces of what has played an important role in the individual’s communicative existence. In other words, in addition to the things that have happened to us, we also remember things we have simply talked about, dreamt or even just imagined. Autobiographical memory is therefore a bio-psycho-social unit potentially capable of drawing upon memory content of any kind whatsoever in response to the needs of the moment (Markowitsch and Welzer 2005). In evolutionary terms, memory is nothing other than the ability of organisms to adapt to a constantly changing environment, which means drawing on previously stored models of reaction to certain stimuli. Memory thus serves to cope with the needs of the particular moment, and the target and point of reference for memories is therefore not located in the past but in the present and the future. In order to address these, the remembering subject can tap sources of any kind whatsoever as long as they can be used to tackle the challenges of the future and are in keeping with what has so far been his or her autobiographical organization.
The seven sins of memory
The way in which we remember therefore depends on what we need at a particular moment. Research has now shown that the autobiographical memory works with immense elasticity to integrate contents from the most disparate sources. This presents a substantial problem, however, in that failure to supply a memory of the past perfectly in line with factual reality is always considered a defect, a sort of mnemonic “misfiring”, or false memory. In any case, it appears very surprising from an evolutionary standpoint that the primary organ through which human beings address and manage the world should have developed in such an incomplete and flawed way as to produce constant errors. Perhaps what is perceived as mnemonic error and false memory – and hence as a source of irritation – possesses an inherent raison d’être and even a rationale of its own. If this were not so, the human memory could never have attained its practically unlimited capacity for integration. As a system that works through association, it is necessarily required to operate with hazy data and speculative connections. The “seven sins of memory” listed by Daniel Schacter in 1999 are transience (the fading of memories over time), absent-mindedness (selectivity at the moment of encoding), blocking (the tipof- the-tongue phenomenon), misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence.
In the case of misattribution, suggestibility and bias in particular, the visual representation of a memory often plays an important role. It is precisely what we can still “see” so vividly in every detail that fosters the invincible conviction that our memory corresponds totally to something that really happened. It is difficult – and very surprising – for the person remembering to realize that a visual memory is not always born out of the impression of the event on the retina and its subsequent storage in the brain but can be due to the fact that the systems of neuronal processing responsible for visual perception and fantasizing overlap, so that purely imaginary events can present themselves in the form of visual memories, things that are still there in the mind’s eye. It is precisely here that we find the greatest gap between the subjective conviction of remembering perfectly and the artificial nature of the memory (Welzer 2002, pp. 34 ff.).
As stated above, these apparent dysfunctions of the memory are generally regarded as something negative. Many of the phenomena that appear to us in everyday life as detestable failures of memory are, however, very useful in actual fact. Generally speaking, forgetting is a constitutive aspect of the ability to remember. If we remembered everything susceptible of perception – and hence recollection – in the flux of events and objects surrounding us at every moment, we would be utterly incapable of self-orientation and decision making for the immediate future. Forgetting is therefore a highly functional adaptive capacity. The phenomena of blocking or temporary inaccessibility of memory data also stem from an adaptive function, namely inhibition, which is necessary in the phase of retrieval in order to select only the required information and not all of the rest along with it. The blocking of memory is therefore a small hitch in the extremely functional system of selective recall. The same holds for absent-mindedness. We primarily perceive whatever our momentary interest focuses on and all the rest fades away on the outside edges of our attention. We are well aware of how narrowly focused our attention is when, for example, we are looking for a telephone number written on a sheet of paper in a drawer full of all sorts of papers and cards. There are, however, few elements that have access to our working memory also in general everyday situations and, as pointed out, there are again very few elements transferred from this into the long-term memory. Selection also takes place in the processes of laying down, preserving and retrieving memories as well as their renewed storage. Engrams can dissolve if they are not activated. One single aspect of a complex system of memories is sometimes selected in the retrieval phase. When laid down again, original content can be stored together with elements belonging to the situation in which the memory was retrieved. In short, memory data are widely subject to alteration caused by use.
The fact that autobiographical memory does not distinguish between “true” and “false” memories should suggest the need for caution in considering the distinction between “truth” and “falsity” with reference to memory. While a concept of truth geared to the objective reconstruction of events that have taken place is unquestionably of great importance in the sphere of science and legal cases, the requisites of scientific or legal truth are met in a very different way from those of social truth. In the first case, only data certified through strictly codified strategies of verification can be called true. In everyday life, truth is instead measured with the yardstick of social conformity. Many of the conflicts of memory that divide scientists and eyewitnesses are due to the chronic failure to take this distinction into consideration. The medial nature of human memory could also be perceived more clearly if we abandoned the traditional and normatively codified distinctions between true and false memories. In an accentuatedly utilitarian way, memory always regards also data from completely different sources – texts of films or stories, content mediated and broadly altered in the course of communication and even what has simply been imagined – as its own recollections. In other words, its medial nature is a constitutive characteristic of human memory.
A primary role is played in eyewitness accounts by established scripts and screenplays, texts that have found a format in the media, social accredited narratives. This phenomenon has, however, not been the object of systematic investigation until today. Our intergenerational study Opa war kein Nazi! (“Grandpa was not a Nazi”; Welzer et al. 2002) lists a whole series of examples of film sequences inserted quite unwittingly into autobiographical accounts. Scenes from war films obviously recur with particular frequency. Since the experience of young men enlisted to fight in the Second World War was represented with particular effectiveness in Bernhard Wicki’s film The Bridge, witnesses have often related experiences practically coinciding with those lived through and endured by its characters. Further points of reference are provided by films like All Quiet on the Western Front and Murderers Among Us. At the same time, there is evidence that in the case of images not linked to events experienced firsthand, cinema can convey a greater sense of authenticity than genuine historical material. An example of this phenomenon is provided by the fact that visitors to the places of memory attach greater importance to the sets of Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List than the “real” places where the atrocities of the Holocaust took place.
Here too, however, the question arises of what “the real places” actually means. The exogrammatic functioning of human memory has always shown that the experience recalled is nothing other than an inextricable tangle of perceptions, interpretations, explanatory models, sources and criteria of social validity. The experiences of the young Werther can also be imported by subjects into their personal memories of late puberty, and it is no coincidence that the difficulties encountered by Don Quixote, one of the first heroes in the history of the novel, were due to his inability to distinguish clearly between reality and literature. He was not wrong, however. There are countless authentic windmills against which Don Quixote fought to be visited in La Mancha today and coaches stop every day outside the fictitious house of the equally fictitious Dulcinea and unload crowds of tourists eager to photograph “the genuine article”. Depending on the cultural level of the subject involved, the importing of memories can even involve a source like Homer or rather the Odyssey, as shown by this last brief example from our interviews. In recalling his transportation as a prisoner of war, the “witness” draws on the character of the astute Ulysses, who escaped the spell of the sirens by having himself bound to the mast of his ship: “Down there, close to the cape, those terrible storms … I tied myself to the main mast. An extraordinary experience, don’t you think? Just imagine … waves as big as houses, and the albatrosses always circling around … And the Southern Cross at night … Well, that’s what I remember. An incredible story, isn’t it?”
Memory and the unconscious
When a communicative praxis has the past and history as its subject, it involves not only the transmission of individual data that can be combined in different ways, like the mobile elements of a narrative, but also and invariably the organizational structure of these combinations, which establishes in advance what actors can appear and in what roles as well as the way in which the content of their experience is to be evaluated. For this reason, situational conditions, causal links, developments and so on are remembered in the way that “makes most sense” to the listener and future narrator. As a result, both the biography of the individual and the history of the community are constantly rewritten in the light of new experiences and needs as well as the new interpretive frameworks offered by the present. We could say that every generation, every age and every present manufactures its own past, choosing the version that proves most valid at the functional level with respect to its orientations and strategic possibilities for the future. This would not be possible if the memory always remembered the same things and always in the same way.
The constitutive medial nature of memory also means that perceiving, interpreting and acting involve far more factors than those accessible to consciousness. In this sense, as the psychologist Mark Freeman points out, autobiography is not concerned with the representation of a life but with the vast set of sources that constitute the self (Freeman 2001, p. 40). What connects these sources with one another is a “communicative unconscious” based on “knowledge” that is far more extensive than what is accessible to the consciousness of the individual actor or all the actors together. The essential elements of our sense of the self – of our propensity for action and our memory – act at an unconscious level, not in the sense that they regard something “cut” or “suppressed” but in the sense of a functional unconscious situated beyond the boundaries of awareness for purely operative reasons. If all mental operations were carried out under the control of consciousness, human beings would be overloaded and therefore incapable of action. In this respect, the time has come to accord the unconscious a far more positive status than the one attributed to it by Sigmund Freud and subsequent psychoanalysts. The unconscious performs a key function for human existence because it relieves conscious action of burdens, thus making it much freer and more efficient. In this sense, we could even reverse Freud’s celebrated dictum and call for the Ego to give way to the Id.
A. Assmann, “Wie wahr sind Erinnerungen?”, in H. Welzer (ed.), Das soziale Gedächtnis. Geschichte, Erinnerung, Tradierung (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2001), pp. 103–22.
M. Donald, A Mind So Rare. The Evolution of Human Consciousness (Norton, 2001).
M. Freeman, “Tradition und Erinnerung des Selbst und der Kultur”, in H. Welzer (ed.), Das Soziale Gedächtnis: Geschichte, Erinnerung, Tradierung (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2001), pp. 25–40.
H.J. Markowitsch and H. Welzer, Das autobiographische Gedächtnis. Hirnorganische Grundlagen und biosoziale Entwicklung (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2005).
D. L. Schacter, “The Seven Sins of Memory”, in American Psychologist, 54, 1999, pp. 182–201.
H. Welzer, Das kommunikative Gedächtnis. Eine Theorie der Erinnerung (Munich: Beck, 2002).
H. Welzer, S. Moller and K. Tschuggnall, “Opa war kein Nazi!” Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im deutschen Familiengedächtnis (Frankfurt: Fischer, 2002).
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