Research and Creative Activity

Indiana University

Office of Research and the University Graduate School
Volume XVII, Number 1, April 1994

Mansions of Memory

A Greek nobleman in antiquity, Simonides, left the banquet table just in time. Moments later his companions were buried when the roof collapsed, so mangled that their relatives could not identify them. Simonides, recalling the places where they sat at the table, used his prodigious memory to solve the lugubrious task.

With this story begins one of the strongest traditions about memory in the Western world. From antiquity through the Renaissance survived a scholarly enterprise of training the memory to recite and recall vast amounts of information.

Orators and poets could repeat flawlessly texts of many hours' duration, locating the words like movable objects in a mansion and then proceeding through the great mental house, lifting the words from the places they were stored. Thus the Iliad, the Odyssey, Beowulf, and many other treasures of Western literature were preserved in an honored skill of "artificial memory," or that produced by deliberate human craft.

Naturally as the human body became the great text for understanding all things human, a process we locate amidst the great artistic and anatomical achievements of the Renaissance, so the human brain seemed the logical repository for the storage of memory. For the last five hundred years, these different physical and metaphorical ways of understanding memory and its importance in all human activities have produced a healthy tension, a wellspring of images, and a strategy for coping with our deepest pains and regrets. Research and creative activity, protected best in our institutions of higher education, provide the modern mansions of memory, the rooms and places open to all who seek to preserve and extend what we know.

In the late twentieth century we have thousands of ways to access and assess the limits of human memory. Recent technologies, some described in the pages to follow, retrieve--though always with the temptation to "enhance" or change--the voices of the past. (A particularly vivid example might be the recent recovery of Gershwin's piano playing during the 1920s, now available on CD.) Photography, of course, preceded the twentieth century, but using this and other technologies, only in our century have we set the still picture in motion and devised myriad ways to recreate the sense of "being there."

"Living" museums, battle reenactments, historical theme parks, and cinema simulate the experiences only memory could once collect. Yet the same century has produced survivors with memories so painful, so horrible, that memory is more problematic than ever before. The century that ends with injunctions to "never forget" the Holocaust began with Sigmund Freud's pathbreaking research on the vital need for repressing threatening childhood memories.

For a little over a hundred years psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and neurobiologists have burrowed ever deeper to find the seats and places of memory, to name and understand all its dimensions and deficits. To cast back to the beginning of this boundaryshattering century, the works of Alzheimer and Pavlov among many others invoke something of the broad spectrum of research on the material, physical bases of memory. On the one hand memory is described by its loss, such as in the tragic disintegration of longstanding remembrances of places and persons, the access to the solace of happier times, and the isolation or alienation from reassurance of our unique, individual identities. Here Indiana University physicians and scientists separate the genetic predisposition to memory loss with aging, from chosen (such as alcohol or tobacco usage) or general environmental influences. Can we enhance a failing memory or retard its unraveling? The basic research of several of our psychologists and biologists frames the search for new therapies. The Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center at the IU School of Medicine provides the desperately needed interim care for the victims of memory loss and the families they often cannot recognize.

On the other hand, just how does memory begin? What do we mean when we say a behavior is instinctual? Is memory something different from what we call learning? Do computer analogies serve well as models or as metaphors for our understanding of the complex activities of storing and retrieving information? Just where in Marcel Proust's brain was the memory of a madeleine cake from his childhood, and how could a taste of cake summon a new mansion for his past?

In the simple, tiny brain of an ordinary bumblebee, IU biologist Leslie Real has mapped the cognitive rules that direct the bee either to keep visiting the same flower patch or to move on to another. Much higher up the evolutionary scale, laboratory rats have no difficulty whatsoever remembering which areas of a maze they have already visited.

IU psychologist William Timberlake can richly describe the phenomenal mnemonic successes of lowly rats or even "dumb" cattle returning to a favorite grazing ground. Why can humans not do so well? Why is the study of human memory not a mere extension of the fundamental biochemical mechanisms revealed in simple creatures?

Psychologist and cognitive scientist David Pisoni can show that with just one tiny component involved in organizing our recognition of a familiar person--the human voice--the production of faithful memories is extremely complex. There are thus two general features of our own strategies for understanding more of the mechanisms of human memory. The first, as we can infer from every part of every research venture represented here, is the collaborative, cooperative nature of modern research--whether in medicine, science, social science, the humanities, or the creative arts. Productive, progressive inquiry depends upon the unique facilities for communication and collaboration that a research university provides its members. Indiana University succeeds in attracting and retaining premier researchers because it supplies the intellectual infrastructure that stimulates new ideas, just as it stores and teaches what we already know.

The second feature of the complexity of human memory can be glimpsed even in the offhand remarks of scientists, such as Professor Real's selection of the bumblebee instead of the socially complex honeybee, or Professor Finkel (IU Southeast) musing on the fragility of memory even when we cannot show a genetic cause.

Memory in humans is a social process, and that is why the humanists and social scientists interviewed here are more likely to appeal to concepts not easily located in brain substance: "symbolic memory" or "collective memory" or "generational memory." Understanding the production, use, and sanctioning of some memories rather than others, humanists and social scientists have come equally as far as the biomedical and computer sciences in the past hundred years. What memories are artificial and which are real have far different resonances for all of us now than before the twentieth century began.

A great sociologist who died for resisting the Nazis, Maurice Halbwachs, argued that all human memories are social, that, for instance, a teacher and his or her students have quite different memories of the same class, because they belong to different social groups. A young child isolated from humans and somehow surviving to tell of the time will have very few memories, though the moments were filled with activity.

Memory is inseparable from human relationships: for example, the story of baby Jessica, the toddler who fell down a neighbor's well, must revolve around the time she was first missed (or last seen), the efforts to find and rescue her. Halbwachs would argue that her memories could be shaped only around the rescue success and the recollection of the person she suddenly missed: mother, and the proxies for mother, warmth, and food. Very little of the important stuff of memory is truly personal and individual; much is collective, bound to the connections that we have with others.

When humans are separated from the relationships that sustain all aspects of our lives, how does memory nurture or betray our sense of personal identity? Not surprisingly, the experience of immigrants and the recollections of people who had the particularly gruesome task of surviving and remembering the Holocaust provide many IU scholars starting points for new research on human memory. Places, pictures, voices, even trivial but treasured objects serve the perennial need to attach a sense of self to community--past, present, and future.

Much modern research on memory in the creative arts and humanities thus serves analogous healing purposes to the search for a drug to prevent or reverse Alzheimer's disease. Some of this comes from a tradition now two hundred years strong, seeing the suffering and illness attached to nostalgia, literally "pain for home," and practically seen in the phenomenon of homesickness and depression.

So we often believe that the obstruction of memory ranges in motivation from disorganized or ill-considered to pernicious, even evil. The recovery of memory is linked to our own wellbeing.

There the results of "cutting-edge" research show the social problem of memory as complex as the physiological phenomenon itself. Memoirs, personal narratives, ethnic and national commemorations and histories, and many other ways of recovering and retaining the "best" of the past in the hands of skilled researchers begin to reveal the fault lines under this common field.

Disturbingly we are learning from courtrooms and criminal investigations that eyewitness accounts are often malleable accounts of experience. Memories can be truthful, but not factual. Cameras can represent only that part of any story that one chooses to record. History is not produced directly from memories but from the needs and purposes of those who have the power to tell the story their way. Personal memories are deployed in ways to deliberately influence others--so shows the work of Professors Bodnar (History), Orsi (Religious Studies), and Bahloul (Anthropology). We can recover the stories of our oldest contemporaries, return to the places of our youth, repeat timehonored rituals to gain the help of a timeliberated saint. But as Professor Wolin's haunting photographs show, we are not the same people we were as we hold the past in our hands, or when we tell anew the story of a tragic, fatedetermining day.

As memory is also a learning process, our memories have moved on; the rooms of the mansion are altered each time we pass through them. That is why we must research, repair, and renew the places we have already been.

--Ann G. Carmichael