[KS] Memories and narratives

Knoob, Stefan stefan.knoob at asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de
Fri Sep 30 04:19:33 EDT 2016


Dear all,



I am but a humble language lecturer with academic interest in the cognitive sciences. I therefore wish to precede this contribution by emphasising my respect for all of those who have experienced these events as well as those who have tried to represent them by collecting and processing large collections of documents and eyewitness accounts. I myself know too little about them and I am not a historian but instead somebody with a keen interest in cognitive processes and cognitive psychology.



I would like, therefore, to join with a note on what we know about episodic memory, that is the long-term memory of embodied experiences and its relationship to the ‘objective reality’ that gives rise to these experiences. Into which 'reality' I include the reality that we experience 'first hand' (by being there) but also 'second hand' by hearing, seeing, reading, researching and - yes - also feeling about events that we have not personally witnessed ourselves.



But to memory. My mother, born in Germany in 1937, suffered far less than others but nevertheless lived through some harrowing experiences. Although she was very young, these experiences have rise to some strong memories, the most vivid and frequently retold of which is her seeing the fire that destroyed the old town in Frankfurt after an allied bombing attack, looking over at the flames in the distance from the window of her flat, standing there together with her father who, back on furlough, had dragged her there in order to show her what Germany had brought upon itself.

To me, this account of my mother has always represented the idiocy and criminality of my grandparents' compatriots and even though my mother was about 6-7 years old at the time, it was such a strong and representative memory that I never had any doubts about it. Until, that is, a couple of years ago, when I mention this to my aunt who had been a teenager at the time. And what did she say? That not only she has no memory of this but that by the time of the air raids on Frankfurt in 1944 they had long left the city for the east German countryside. To top it all, like most ordinary soldiers, her father had never managed to get back on furlough during the entire war.



Now you can dismiss this as 'unreliable childhood memory'. But to harder science: It has long been known among cognitive psychologists that experiential “imprints” on the brain are extremely plastic and prone to modification each time that they are recalled and thus re-experienced by the individual. Particularly if they are recalled and re-experienced in the context of assertions and memories of others. Unfortunately, however, circumstances have conspired to keep this fact out of the mainstream until recently. Reasons include the fact that we are used to the idea of “objective recordability” through film and electronic recordings, the dominance of the AI paradigm in cognitive science that has given us the false idea of the human brain as an electronic computer and, most of all, the simple fact that to every one of us our memories are entirely real and often of amazing clarity.



Recently, however, cognitive psychology at least is coming round to the idea that the memories of our experience almost always diverge from “objective reality”. Indeed, whenever we have an "objective" recording to compare with, the question is not whether memory diverges but by how much. To give but two examples that the reader of this post might check out, one of the first eminent researchers of “false memory”, Elisabeth Loftus, has done a great job of summarise the essence of her research on the faculty homepage of the U of Washington (Check here<https://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm>). And an interesting, indeed almost unethical experiment in the implantation of false memories by the forensic psychologists Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter is published here: Shaw & Porter<http://nebula.wsimg.com/817eae8b59ce6cedb6a5ed0d104b5c34?AccessKeyId=AF62ECFBCD8F6D95BACE&disposition=0&alloworigin=1>.



Against this scientific background it seems to me that the only way that we can approach any historical event of such a complex nature is to try and gather as many accounts and documents as possible, from as many corners as possible, to try and establish a multi-dimensional narrative that can live with the possibility of alternative threads whenever the evidence itself is multi-faceted. And to then try to concentrate on the essence of the underlying conflict and the circumstances, beliefs and motivations of the different individual and collective actors in them.



Again, with my full respect for the memories of each and every one who experienced the events in question, directly or as a contemporary, in or out of country I remain

With best wishes

Stefan Knoob
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