Recreation of Memory

A few months back I listened to a podcast on memory from one of my favorite radio shows, Radiolab out of NYC.

While we often think of our memory as file cabinet and when we want to retrieve a memory we just go into the drawer and pull it out. Through experiments scientist have concluded that this file cabinet view is wrong and in actuality each time we remember something we create a new memory, so the more we think about something the less it is like what actually happened.

So what does this have to do with US history in film? Consider Birth of a Nation, a movie about slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction. Knowing the majority of US citizens go to the theater at this point in history, while they watch the movie they are forced to think about the time period. In thinking about that memory, either from what was learned or actual memories from the time, they are recreating it. So their memory is being slightly skewed towards what the film has presented.

Historical films force us to think about history (duh) and with that the memories of what we have learned about or experience during the time period. Knowing visual and audio leave a lasting impression on us and that we create new memories every time we remember, watching films can change (without us even realizing it) the way we view historical events.

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3 Responses to “Recreation of Memory”

  1. so i was talking to a student yesterday about exactly this! she (the student) is a painter and is in the middle of a project spurred on by her thinking about cultural memory. she wants to do a paper on it and so we were thinking about how collectively held memory is so much more about the emotional result of an event than the facts (“facts”) of the event itself. like your mother remembers vividly the one small element of something you and she experienced together, but you remember that specific thing to which she has attached this memory not AT ALL. it doesn’t even figure in your memory of this moment you both think you share. and you do share it, but SO differently! this is awesome. this is poetry. thanks for the link, shannon. i hope you’re doing great. (oh! and i also got a kick out of hearing faulkner’s voice. thanks!)

  2. Missak says:

    Wow, that’s some deep stuff. I always thought that our minds worked like the cabinet, but I see what you mean, how when remembering things our memories are skewed. Since you’re a history major, it’s probably relevant to point out that all historians skew history, not necessarily because they remember it differently, but because they interpret it differently. For example, the movie Birth of a Nation is just a few people’s interpretation of the past, rather than what actually happened, which is similar, I suppose to how our minds work when we remember things.

    P.S. I’m sorry to say that I’ve never seen CSI. You may be right about those fans being hard to come by. I’ve never met a CSI fan either.

  3. Steve says:

    Perhaps the effect you describe comes from uncritical viewing of films. What if while you were watching the film, you were constantly thinking about how the film portrayal diverged from your understanding of the event? Might that not weaken the effect?

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