Context is Everything – Susan Engel

I have just finished reading this excellent book (subtitled ‘The Nature of Memory’) and it reminds me why starting my psychology degree is the best thing I’ve ever done. This wonderful semi-popular, semi-academic book on the transactional, narrative and reconstructive nature of memory is not something I would have otherwise read. And even if I had read it, I would not have taken as much away from it without the grouding in social psychology I grudingly acquired last year.

It was a slow dawning realisation that this was a good book. For the first few chapters, I sniffily looked down my nose at it. It felt a little ‘lite’; there were no footnotes, not many citations, nairy a graph and many of the examples were actually taken from works of literature. The sort of thing one might expect and forgive from a talented amateur like Arthur Koestler but as an offering from a real psychologist, it left me feeling cheated.

I pressed on and the first forms of reward were from the description and outline of her own original research – investigating how children’s first narrative memories are constructed in collaboration with adults (parents, carers, etc.) From the outset our so-called episodic memories act in ways far removed from the faithful verbatim recording we often feel we’ve experienced. For little children, the limits of their linguistic abilities constrain what they can say about the past and how they experience it. Not that we can know how they experience it, but two things emerge. They only really relive the past when prompted to do so, and rely heavily on confirmation and elaboration from the adult or their peers. And when they tell these stories to others and later to themselves, the world is seen through a distorting lens.

This story-telling approach and the work of Elizabeth Loftus on ‘false’ memories might lead us down the path of thinking that we are misremembering things but the main aim of Engel’s book is to convince you that there is no perfect record of the past that can ever be accessed. Not just for children but also for adults. Whenever we remember something it is a form of story-telling. We do not reel off a reliable testimony. We place ourselves more centrally in every story. We justify our actions, although we are as likely to remember our inglorious episodes as our triumphs, but we always create a coherent narrative, conveniently overlooking/forgetting inconsistencies. We change our stories depending on our audience, and our internal ‘veridicial’ version is a patchwork of associations to other locations and events, scripted by common schemas and recurring highly stylised storylines and characters who turn into stereotypes, all of it overlayed by certain ineffable emotional traces and scents.

Moreover, this applies to our experience of the present too. The world is much less dual than we realise. We are embedded in our caricaturing perceptual experiences, the salience and significance of events is mostly self-generated by our backgrounds, our biases, our hopes and our expectations. Personality is a product of how we see ourselves through the eyes of others and how we interact and fall into certain social roles. Social psychology tries (albeit often in idiosyncratic style) to beat this into the thick skulls of us ‘weights and measures’ experimental scientists.

Susan Engel tries to do the same with our idea of memory (and largely succeeds.) Our memories cannot stand apart from our personalities, our self-image and own particular stock of personal meanings. Everytime we think we are remembering a certain episode, we are actually rewriting our autobiographies to suit our present. So we should be wary of making our memory the foundation stone of our personal narrative and we should be even more wary of therapy that reaches back into our childhoods to find the cures for our neuroses. Certainly we can find evidence and enlightenment of our present mental states in our stories of the past, but we cannot find its causes, the cures. And laying the blame on ghosts will only continue the hauntings.

At least, that’s how I remember it.

About caspar

Caspar is just one monkey among billions. Battering his keyboard without expectations even of peanuts, let alone of aping the Immortal Bard. By day he is an infantologist at Birkbeck Babylab, by night he runs BabyLaughter.net
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