Neuroscience and the Humanities

Carsten Lohan
On Tuesday December 1st, the Trinity Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies hosted a well attended lecture titled: Neuroscience and the Humanities. Three speakers each spoke on the notion of memory, and sought to clarify what current scientific knowledge of the brain could tell us about the study of the past. The first speaker, a Trinity professor of Psychology, Elizabeth Casserly, briefed the audience on the more concrete aspects of memory, and how it acts as a function of the brain. She discussed the notion of a concept network as it pertained to the linguistic label of the word ‘cat.’ While that label of ‘cat’ could trigger a concept network of other words or ideas related to a cat, professor Casserly could not remember the name of her grandparents cat, just that it was black in color, and agreeable. As she said this, I had recalled an instance from a week or so earlier where I attempted to draw a floorplan for home I lived in until I was six. Comparing my floorplan with those of other units in the building (from online for sale listings), I had done a very good job of representing the rooms and hallways of my childhood apartment. However, I could not remember the floor it was on for the life of me. This irked me to great avail, and it emphasised what Ms. Casserly had been saying when she mentioned the difference of how memory was encoded in the brain under normal circumstances, and how it was encoded as a ‘flashbulb’ memory. My own autobiographical ‘flashbulb’ memories made me certain of the placement of the dining room table, as I had severely cut myself on it one day as a young child running through the house.
The next speaker, Aaron Seider, a classics professor at Holy Cross gave an interesting viewpoint of memory from the classical greek and roman perspectives. Perhaps the most interesting facet of information I took away from Mr. Seider was his mention of the Roman lawyers and how they had to often remember important details of their cases without notes. They used the method of Loci, where one creates a memory palace and places objects in that space. Sure, I had heard of this practice before (even by name,) but I did not know those of ancient times practiced it. One thing that Seider did not particularly mention was the heavy dependence of oral history in these times, and it’s flawed interpretations (or reinterpretations) of the past.
Yet, I was delighted when Professor Evelien spoke next, with his frequent quotations from German philosopher, Walter Benjamin. Evelien quoted an important line from Benjamin, “Memory is not an instrument for surveying the past but it’s theater. It is the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.” While I fully embrace Benjamin’s notion, I simply can not trust memory as the foundation of history. To do so would be dishonest to the past. Memory, as science can tell us, is unreliable. This is a notion I struggle with as a History major. To trust someone’s recollection as fact can prove dangerous. This is why I often place less emphasis on autobiographies of historical figures written later in their life. What would our understanding of American slavery be if we solely relied on the oral testimonials given by former slaves during the 1930’s as part of the WPA Slave Narrative Project? Most of those interviewed were in their 80’s or 90’s at the time, and were only children when emancipated. Thus, it is the task of the historian not to leverage memory as fact, but rather to interpret it through the lens of the past.

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