Clever Scientists Discover “Memory Conformity”; Or, What Historians Often Call Collective Memory

Because articles concerning collective memory and — the more incriminating term — memory conformity make any holiday season brighter, a usual colleague (or suspect) forwarded Jonah Lehrer’s “How Friends Ruin Memory: The Social Conformity Effect” my way, this piece published in the October 18, 2011 issue of Wired.com. Within this article link is a sub-link to the more interesting piece by Micah Edelson, et al., “Following the Crowd: Brain Substrates of Long-Term Memory Conformity” Science 333, 108 (2011). Without getting too far into either piece, the language used in the titles of both articles demonstrate a type of “ah-ha!” response that often comes from — ahem — really clever scientists when they confront neuroscience, which in turn is a fancy way to say how us humans continuously and incessantly attempt to compartmentalize and chart the infinite mysteries that are the even more infinite causes and effects of the bio-chemical processes inherent to the human brain.

Essentially the two articles do what is necessary in any discipline, and that is create an argument using that old Aristotilean device of rhetoric. This device of rhetoric, in turn, is necessary to advance ideas into the forum for discussion and debate. Perhaps the most annoying two items of rhetoric in the article comes in the form of 1) scientific assertions as being irrefutable; and 2) some individual bringing the idea that human memory alters how it remembers events over time to readers as an “ah-ha!” This latter item strongly suggests that if someone changes their mind about something over time, they are a bullshitter, a topic that Harry Frankfurt said was one of the most salient features of our culture. Without hypothesizing too far (which usually is a phrase that suggests “too late!”), I wondered if the younger Lehrer didn’t appropriate this idea and language from the elder Frankfurt, who is professor emeritus at Princeton. Is Lehrer conforming to Frankfurt? I’m uncertain.

Anyhow, note how the first item — that science is irrefutable — provides a foundation for the second item to rest upon — if people change their minds, they are bullshitters. Yet also note how the article lacks an intelligent and protracted discussion on how the inaccuracies of our brain are largely contingent on how new evidence and better ways of explaining historical events continuously surface over time. And also note how since society is an organism, it evolves just as much as its interpretation of events evolves — thus, if society’s interpretation of events do not evolve, that society is indeed as stagnant as its memory. A conversation about how new evidence and better ways of explaining scientific events are also lacking from the articles, but it is unnecessary to hammer away too much at the clever Lehrer on this point. His article really speaks for itself.

Also note the idea of language appropriation, or how the lot of us don’t really know how to articulate an event until authors, poets and laureates help us out with it. It is even better if a great author, great poet, or great laureate is on the scene. Since authors, poets and laureates use the technology of language, they can advance human understanding with that more precise vocabulary (since they were trained with languages and vocabularies as well). Calling it bullshit may get a dialog going, and it may also be calling out purveyors of platitudes and clichés, but it may also be one of the most ineffective, condescending and barbarous ways to get a conversation started. Which is another conversation in itself.


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