FEATURE — Winter 2005


How Our Memories Shape Us

According to foremost memory scholar Pascal Boyer, what’s happening in people’s minds—possibly how our brains are organized—influences human cultures.

By Kristin Tennant

A specific smell—perhaps of leather or a cup of Earl Grey tea—can evoke a powerful memory. Other memories emerge suddenly to protect us from danger, allowing us to apply what we’ve learned from past mistakes. Family members can argue endlessly over conflicting memories of a certain holiday or vacation. Even firsthand journalistic accounts and history books often can’t seem to agree on the details of a significant moment in time.

Memory, it seems, is a universal and endlessly relevant topic, one that has an enormous impact on how our individual and cultural identities are shaped. But in spite of the prominent role of memory in our world, one of the foremost scholars in the field, Pascal Boyer, was a bit of an oddity without a home until he arrived at Washington University in 2000 as the Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory in Arts & Sciences.

“It was an astounding thing to discover—they were looking for exactly the strange kind of animal I am,” says Boyer, whose work integrates aspects of evolution, cognition, and culture. “I had never quite fit into any single department or position before.”

Pascal Boyer is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory. His research integrates evolution, cognition, and culture, and it has found a true home at the University, where the study of memory is being addressed in a broad, integrated manner.

But Arts & Sciences wanted Boyer for good reason. Boyer, who also directs the Henry R. Luce Program in Individual and Collective Memory, earned a doctorate in anthropology from Paris-Nanterre and taught at Cambridge University; he is the author of four books and more than 40 journal articles and book chapters around the study of memory. Washington University is a perfect fit for Boyer because it is the only university in the world addressing memory in this broad, integrated sense, according to James Wertsch, the Marshall S. Snow Professor in Arts & Sciences and one of the developers of the Luce Program.

“Already in the 1990s there was an upsurge of interest in human memory—both individual and collective—in the public and in academic discussions around the world, but no one had created a general initiative on memory studies to examine memory in the broad sense,” says Wertsch. “The more we thought about this, the more we realized we should jump at the opportunity. Washington University is the most interdisciplinary place I have ever been, or ever even heard of, so we had a unique opportunity to come up with something not usually found in universities in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world.”

Although memory studies programs are rare, the relevance of the topic is clear. Issues surrounding memory permeate history, law, politics, literature, psychology, medicine, and cultural studies—virtually every area that has anything to do with people.

“Many problems in culture are memory-related problems,” Boyer says. “Can the victim of an assault accurately name the perpetrator? Can historians look at rival accounts of what has happened in Kosovo or Israel and determine that one account is the true one? How should we deal with the memories associated with trauma, like those surrounding the Holocaust? Many of these issues have certainly been studied, but there haven’t been attempts to integrate all of those things. That’s the goal of the Luce Program.”

It’s exactly this kind of integrative research and teaching that’s at the heart of the Henry R. Luce Program in Individual and Collective Memory, which was established in 1998. At Washington University, the Luce Program includes undergraduate courses, graduate and faculty seminars, and workshops and conferences. The program’s memory studies minor came into official existence at the beginning of the 2005–06 academic year, and a freshman program, “Thinking the Past,” is set to be added next year.

Although ideas surrounding autobiographical memory spark most students to take the courses, Boyer’s Introduction to Memory Studies course demonstrates the breadth of topics covered: individual memory systems, episodic and semantic memory, working memory, memory systems in the brain, amnesia, memory and self, historical events and personal memories, remembered events and the construction of collective identity, and processes of knowledge transmission. That list alone opens the floodgates of possible further applications for students in almost any discipline, as Wertsch points out.

“The fact that we have memory studies as a minor means that students and faculty are having discussions across disciplinary and departmental boundaries that hardly ever happen,” Wertsch says. “It has been a fantastic learning experience for all of us.”

Boyer exudes the naturally inquisitive personality of a true scientist—he asks as many questions as he answers: What happens to a person’s memory and therefore sense of identity when that person’s parents die? How does memory—particularly conflicting memories—play into how we teach history? How is it possible that although certain massacres clearly happened there are people who say they didn’t? If no one who was a slave is alive today, how do we understand slavery? Is the past negotiable in terms of how Supreme Court judges treat cultural transmissions? And as more and more contested accounts of the past are communicated via the Internet, how do you sort through it all to the truth?

“My patterns of asking questions come mostly from my teaching,” Boyer says. “I start the course with the students’ questions. This works better than telling them: ‘I’m going to tell you what the real questions are and provide the answer to those.’”

Boyer’s clinical and field research takes the matter even deeper. In essence, Boyer focuses on answering this question: What’s happening in our brains when we remember and relay cultural knowledge, norms, and preferences? Ultimately, he wants to show how our brains and the way they are organized influence human cultures. This is true, Boyer proposes, because certain types of ideas are easier than others to acquire and communicate, so they become the ideas that are most readily embraced and stabilized.

These ideas first emerged for Boyer when, as an anthropologist, he began studying memory through extensive field research focusing on the transmission of oral epics in Africa. “I became interested in how people across generations could transmit culture without literacy,” Boyer says. “Generations of people in Africa were able to remember extraordinarily long stories that could take eight or more hours to tell, just by relying on memory techniques. It was fascinating and led me to my interest in what was actually happening in people’s minds as they recalled these stories.”

“I became interested in how people across generations could transmit culture without literacy,” Boyer says. “Generations of people in Africa were able to remember extraordinarily long stories that could take eight or more hours to tell, just by relying on memory techniques. It was fascinating and led me to my interest in what was actually happening in people’s minds as they recalled these stories.”

The next logical step was for Boyer to begin training in psychology, allowing him to meld empirical research with his field research. Soon he was researching the transmission of religious concepts. In his well-known and debated book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Random House, 2001), Boyer organized his argument around a series of questions, many of which are chapter titles: Why do gods and spirits matter? Why is religion about death? Why doctrines, exclusion, and violence?

Recently, Boyer has worked in his lab with young children, seeking to describe their most fundamental concepts and then to study how those concepts affect the acquisition of cultural knowledge. In particular, Boyer has looked at number and memory—the ability preschoolers have to understand number concepts before they learn to count.

“We’ve been trying to understand which numerical aspects stem from memory,” says Boyer. “For instance, very young children are able to understand who is a good provider—who gives them more cookies. So do children have a good idea of the variance of resources? Who can be trusted to give you candy regularly, but not very much, as opposed to who is more generous yet more sporadic? These are the types of questions we are looking at.”

As is often the case with any type of research, one idea or finding leads to another. With Boyer, the ideas seem to virtually tumble over one another. The psychology of ritual is Boyer’s most current focus. The questions are new ones, but closely related to those he’s asked in his studies of religion and children: Why do people engage in ritual when they seem to be a waste of time? Why are children so tied to rituals? Why are there many similarities in rituals belonging to completely different cultures? And how does enacting rituals affect memory?

The questions are big and the research is complex, but Boyer is always able to bring his interest in memory and the questions he asks back to everyday life. In particular, Boyer, whose second child was born in 2005, fully recognizes the most basic fascinations with memory, from how our memories shape us to the ways we try to shape our memories.

“As parents, we try to create these wonderful memories for our children, but they tend to remember rather banal details,” Boyer says. “My 3-year-old son remembers much more about the terminals in the Chicago airport than the beauty of the mountains in Montana we went to see. But it is quite likely children remember the details that are most important to their development, not what we imagine they’ll remember.”

Boyer doesn’t see his home as a fieldwork site, though.

“I play the clarinet, and my son finds it ‘painful in the ears,’ which I suppose creates memories,” Boyer jokes. “At times I try to give my son cues about something that happened six months ago to see what he remembers, but I generally try to stay away from that. I have enough 2- to 5-year-olds in my lab. I generally just focus on enjoying my own children and making my own memories with them.”

Kristin Tennant is a free-lance writer based in Urbana, Illinois