How Culture is Intertwined with our Memory by Jone Bacinskaite

Humans tend to view memory as two different entities. Semantic memory, our knowledge of facts and trivia (or “book-learning”), is seen as a skill; something that certain people are naturally better at, but that can be improved with practice or wither with disuse. Episodic memory, the personal recollection of the events that make up our lives, is viewed as integral to our personal identity; a fundamental human experience that when damaged or lost diminishes the humanity of the impaired. While we are familiar with the purpose and function of the former, the ways in our personal memories create our identity are far less clear, even though subjectively the fact that they do feels obvious.

Episodic memories create personal identity through two channels: first it creates a timeline of our lives, the rough outline of which we are constantly aware of; second, they affect our self-image by manipulating how we perceive and evaluate our current self. Human beings are wired to perceive ourselves as continuously improving over time, whatever improvement may mean for the individual. Thus to maintain a higher opinion of ourselves, we distance ourselves from episodic memories of past failures and feel subjectively closer to previous successes. While this gives the impression that we manipulate memory in order to maintain a positive self image, the converse relationship is also constantly in function. When reminded by some trigger of a past success, you would evaluate yourself more positively than if primed to recall your failures, irrespective of how big or severe those successes and failures actually were. Without episodic memory, you would be unable to form an opinion of your current self, which would lead to extreme confusion, if not total loss of identity.

But memory doesn’t only create our personal identities; it is the basis upon which our cultural identity, and culture in general, is formed. Cultures are groups of humans with a collective memory, maintained by a set of texts, rituals, oral traditions, etc. This “collective memory” contains not only the rites and accepted behaviors that make up a culture’s tradition, but also the episodic history of the culture’s birth and formative (or disruptive) events. Every individual develops this collective memory along with their personal memory through retelling of its contents by family members and the community around them. The very purpose of tradition is to develop and maintain this collective memory – and when sufficient traditions are neglected or lost, the culture itself becomes a lesser part of individuals’ personal identities. When too many people become thus detached, the culture itself crumbles. For collective memory, and thus culture, to persist, it needs to be constantly reconstructed and related to the present circumstances of those individuals who are part of that culture.

Prior to the 20th century, collective memory was ingrained through texts, rituals, oral traditions, etc., but the advent of cinema in the 1920s and development of the internet in the 1990s fundamentally changed how cultures developed and were maintained. Film has the unique ability to visually instill secondary episodic memories in viewers. In this case, secondary episodic memory is a relatively broad concept, meaning both scenes of events that actually did occur and events that are completely fictional, both of which become memories of the viewers. Because our visual sense is the one we usually experience “remembering” episodic memories in, films can create very strong and visceral episodic memories in a very large group of people, which creates a stronger feeling of connection to the story (cultural history) that the film is portraying. Thus not only can film create a stronger sense of connection, it can also reach a huge amount of people, creating cultural collective memory on a global scale. This, along with the Internet via which all forms of collective memory teaching can be shared, has led to the growth of a global “millennial” culture which is beginning to breach the barriers of tradition that have separated human groups for millennia. This is exemplified by nations with controlled access to film and Internet, as they are not spreading their culture and are becoming more and more cut off from the emerging global culture. This is not to say that all cultures are disappearing, overcome by globalization; rather they are being shared and integrated, with the main consequence being a deeper understanding and appreciation of human similarities and differences. It can be hoped that by providing free and uncensored access to film and online media, the globalization of cultures will proceed, with the end result being the end of culture-based violence and discrimination.


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