6 May 2011

Socially Distributed Remembering

Approaches to socially distributed remembering in philosophy and cognitive psychology (Sutton, 2005, 2008) acknowledge that remembering often occurs in social groups (e.g. partners, friends, family members) in response to their views on our past or their own. Thus, the act of sharing memories with others is one of the most common ways to create, maintain and negotiate human relationships. These processes of sharing memories occur through a wide range of activities which play a central role in how we reconstruct and communicate our memories. These activities are embedded in social and material environments which influence our present interests and needs when engaged in processes of remembering. Hence, the social context (e.g. setting, participants, goals) in which these practices of joint remembering unfold strongly influence what and how we remember (Harris, Paterson & Kemp, 2008, p.217). Studies in constructive-collaborative remembering (Barnier et al., 2008; Sutton, 2008, Sutton et al., 2010) also indicate that collaborative remembering in small groups is situated, goal-oriented and, as expected (due to the influence exerted by the previous two features), cognitive processes involving the interplay of our brains, bodies, and the immediate physical and social environment. These studies (Harris et al., 2010) showed that under some circumstances older couples engaged in practices of collaborative remembering are able to remember information that both individuals had forgotten. Harris et al. (2010) noted that the mechanisms of collaborative facilitation which allowed better recall were driven by shared strategies, interactive cuing styles and repetition (p. 134).

The conclusions drawn from the studies reviewed above have several important implications for memory research in cognitive psychology. Firstly, they were conducted in naturalistic settings (homes of the older couples). Secondly, they demonstrated that the distributed cognition hypothesis is relevant for memory research. Thirdly, they combined quantitative and qualitative analyses of the data which is quite uncommon in cognitive psychology. I agree with one of the authors (Barnier, 2010) that their findings can have important implications for research projects on everyday remembering in specific environments; for instance to ‘explore whether remembering with intimate others can compensate for decline in an individual’s memory and may even help to protect memory when brain illness strikes’ (Barnier, 2010, p.295). In addition, these studies have demonstrated the immense value that new paradigms in cognitive sciences grounded in the distributed cognition hypothesis have in modern memory research. This new paradigm can be extremely useful to investigate not only how small groups create embodied socio-cognitive systems in multimodal interactions about past experiences, but also how we couple with technological devices in order to enhance our capacity for memory processes.


Barnier, A. (2010). Memories, memory studies and my iPhone: Editorial. Memory Studies 3 (4), 293-297.

Barnier, A. Sutton, J., Harris, C. & Wilson, R. (2008). A conceptual and empirical framework for the social distribution of cognition: the case of memory. Cognitive Systems Research 9 (1), 33-51.

Harris, C.B., Paterson, H.M., & Kemp, R.I. (2008). Collaborative recall and collective memory: What happens when we remember together? Memory 16, 213-230.

Harris, C., Keil, P., Sutton, J., & Barnier, A. (2010). Collaborative remembering: when can remembering with others be beneficial? In W. Christensen, E. Schier, & J. Sutton, (eds.), ASCS09: Proceedings of the 9th Conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science (pp.131-134). Sydney: Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science.

Harris, C., Keil, P., Sutton, J., McIlwain D.J.F. & Barnier, A.J. (in press). We remember, we forget: collaborative remembering in older couples. Discourse Processes.

Sutton, J. (2005). Memory and the extended mind: embodiment, cognition, and culture. Cognitive Processing 6 (4), 223-6.

Sutton, J. (2008). Between individual and collective memory: interaction, coordination, distribution. Social Research 75, 23-48.

Sutton, J. (2009). The feel of the world: exograms, habits, and the confusion of types of memory. In A. Kania (ed.), Philosophers on Memento (65-86). London: Routledge.

Sutton, J., Harris, C., Keil, P. & Barnier, A. (2010). The psychology of memory, extended cognition, and socially distributed remembering. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 9 (4), 521-560.

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