Of the Cognitive and the Collective

via Mind Hacks:

Cognitive scientist Chris Chatham publishes Developing Intelligence, a science blog that takes a hard-science approach to the problems of memory, vision, and perception, among other aspects of human (and non-human) intelligence. Over the course of several posts, Chatham has investigated the ‘seven sins of memory’, a theory published by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Schacter in 1999. Schacter’s original paper, “The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience,” is available for download here. In response to his project, Chatham argues that all types of memory inaccuracy stems from three distinct types of memory system failure: those of maintenance, search, and monitoring (See corresponding post links, in which Chatham offers throrough support for his claims.)

Image courtesy Wikipedia.

I am most interested in Schacter’s fifth and seventh ‘sins’ of memory, as described by Chatham in his original post on the subject:

Suggestibility refers to the powerful influence that subtle things like question phrasing can exert on memory … [People] can be easily made to believe that certain things happened to them which never did.

[Persistence] refers to the fact that we can’t forget some of the memories we would most like to. This infamous trait of memory is at the root of problems like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Schacter and Chatham’s analyses are fascinating, delving into scientific explanations for the problems that people like myself discuss mostly in theoretical or philosophical terms. Within the context of my own project, however, I am concerned with the possibility that visual representations might trigger (or even suggest) certain memories that may or may not be “real”— copies without originals, if you will. How, for instance, do we begin to individually identify with historical events that we didn’t experience first hand? I, along with many others, believe that the image plays perhaps the most significant role in this process, especially in a visually driven world where television and the Internet have largely replaced the radio and even print media.

In “The Precession of Simulacra,” published in Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard identifies simulation as the opposite of representation or equivalence, as “[feigning] to have what one doesn’t have.” He differentiates clearly between the act of simulating and that of pretending:

Whoever simulates and illness produces in himself some of the symptoms” (Littré). Therefore, pretending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the “true” and the “false,” the “real” and the “imaginary.” Is the simulator sick or not, given that he produces “true” symptoms? (3)

The image, then, has no relationship to reality, the concept of which is problematic to begin with. The image is, rather, a “strategy of the real.” (6, emphasis mine) Baudrillard identifies the image as the moment when “nostalgia assumes its full meaning.” (5)

Advertisement for the nostalgia industry’s latest, World Trade Center. Image courtesy Google Images.

Chathan identifies visual objects and images as stimuli that induce “retrieval induced forgetting,” whereby a subject who was, for example, asked to recount the works held by a museum’s collection, would be more likely to remember only those specific objects that he or she were specifically required to discuss or identify, forgetting those that weren’t mentioned. Might this be one of the ways in which a society arrives at so-called “collective” memory or identity? I think so. Historical narratives and first-hand accounts are relayed by those who bore witness, translated and distilled into the iconographic images that come to signify a given event. Most of us weren’t there when the towers blew up or the wall came down, but we might feel as though we were or remain confident, at least, in our abilities to imagine what being there might have felt like. Images are transformed into a sense of longing often confused with experiential memory. Nostalgia has achieved its full meaning.


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Filed under Technology, Theory, Visual Culture

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