22 October 2010

Constructive memory in the brain: evidence against the “storage metaphor”

The constructive nature of processes of episodic remembering is fundamentally grounded in cutting-edge findings with regards to the interlocking of culture, mind and the brain: Bartlett’s influential book Remembering (1932) in which he investigated the constructive character and progressive rationalization of exotic stories in a series of re-narrations by British students according to their cultural schemata; and, secondly, the new neurobiological findings in brain plasticity (Brockmeier, 2010; Edelman, 1990), which show that the brain changes all the time, continuously adapting to new circumstances (Brockmeier, 2010, p.24). In current neuroscientific memory research it is hard to find an approach which does not consider the constructive character of episodic remembering.

Recent investigations on episodic thinking about the future (Addis, Wong & Schacter, 2007; Szpunar, 2010) present neurophysiological and nueroimaging evidence, which indicates that remembering the past and imagining the future are driven by a important overlap in psychological and neural processes. These findings sustained the view of several neurobiologists and neurochemists (Edelman & Tononi, 2000; Maturana & Varela, 1992) who have introduced solid arguments concerning the constructionist character of memory. Evidence from studies on episodic thinking about the future, along with the ideas introduced by constructionist neuroscientists, can be considered to be in accordance with the position maintained by influential critical and discursive psychologists in the social sciences (Brockmeier, 2010; Danziger, 2008; Edwards & Middleton, 1990) who have strongly criticized the widely used “storage metaphor” in mainstream memory research in cognitive psychology. In sum, these different and opposing views on memory reflect a present discussion that goes beyond the neuroscientific study of episodic remembering. That is, to what extent episodic remembering is a construction driven by memory traces in the mind which are created by impressions called “engrams” (Ogden & Richards, 1956), which are the residual trace of an adaptation made by the organism in response to a stimulus (Odgen & Richards, 1956: 53), or whether these successive re-constructions which enable us to mentally travel back in time are rather more dependent on and driven by the present context of remembering, which is formed by external symbolic devices called “exograms” (Donald, 1991; Sutton, 2009) that act as memory cues.


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Ogden, C. K. & Richards, I. A. (1956). The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Sutton, J. (2009). The Feel of the World: exograms, habits, and the confusion of types of memory. In A. Kania (ed.), Memento (Philosophers on Films). New York: Routledge, 65-86.

Szpunar, K.K. (2010). Episodic future thought: An emerging concept. Perspectives on Psychological Science 5 (2), 142-162.

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