Why memory matters

Memories – Northern New South Wales, Australia – December 2013

We all have memories, but as all of us have doubtless experienced, when we reminisce with others, our memory of events is not necessarily the same as the other’s.  These memories which are of the past, are inaccessible as they really were.  Instead, they are retrieved now, in the present, they are located in the present, they are remembered by the person who exists here and now.  Consequently, when we remember we do so in a way that reconstructs the past to align with our present identity, and this identity is the one that will take us into the future that we aspire to.

Science identifies a number of factors influencing recall. Our expectations, past experiences, recently gathered information, exposure to language, and emotional state all shape what exactly we “remember”. This is an ongoing process, which means the memory recalled might be slightly different each time. Therefore, the way I or you recall an event today will not be the same when we return to it tomorrow. The exact biological processes by which this occurs are up for discussion but the scientific models agree – memory is actively reconstructed over and over.

Memory, in this way, is shaped by what exists now.

Neuroscience also tells us how memory is fallible in this way.  We tend to remember extremes, of joy, of sadness, but also those other things that fit in with our picture of who we are now, of the story we have created.  In fact, in certain circumstances, we can even remember things that never actually occurred.

And so, as time unfolds and we grow as people individually and collectively, we construct a picture of ourselves and reinforce this picture with memories that fit.  This picture, which we are calling identity, is also reinforced by the experiences that we seek out and the narratives we construct around them.  It is through this identity that we then project where we are headed next, and into the future.

Consider the following example. Many young people are asked the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” This question is one that fits or rather emanates from the world that exists, at least the developed world which allows such opportunity and luxury. People are labeled with professions and vocations and school is broken into disciplines. And so, children grow up within such frames, where aspirations are modulated through the experiences they seek, channeled through and stumble onto, and what they remember of these. If we ask the question “who do you want to be?” the frame changes, and the emphasis shifts to one of character, of the person within.  Unfortunately, in our experience, this question ought to be far more prevalent than it is.

These events of these memories are created in contexts of which we are a part.  Those around us at the time also remember and as do those before them.  As such our identity is a product, in part, of that which came before us. And so our identity lies in the stories created through time.  We may have no memories, but we have the story.

Many of us write, whether it be blogs or journals, or diaries or notes to ourselves and to others. What we write is only what we deem important at the time. This, in itself, is a process of memory construction.  We are not writing of events as they occur, we are writing of them afterwards, and so what we record is what is important for us to record at the time of writing, and this is influenced by the picture we have of ourselves, at that time, as well as our current emotional state.  While such records can give us an idea of what events or feelings integrated with who we were then, we also need to take some care. Because writing is active and reflective, we can see bias enter, where we may record events in order to feel a certain way in order to justify future actions.  What we need to do then, as people who want to understand ourselves, people who want to grow, is to revisit what we have written in the past and do so with a critical eye.  Questions such as “why did I write that then?” are important to ask ourselves, or for trusted friends to ask us, as they serve as gateways to see how we may have changed.

This is important as it can identify those persuasions that we were vulnerable to, and perhaps still might be in certain situations.

The above is only considering individual memory and narrative, but humans, by and large, are communal. Consequently, there are contexts in which we have a common story of experience, which comes to us through memory, whether personally lived or passed down in other ways.  In such a case there are two things to consider.  

The first is the story and the association we have with it.  Stories which have depth, of time or commitment, tend to have far more resilience, tend to inform who we are far more than those that don’t.  Such stories also harbor traditions, ways of acting that highlight elements of the story and thus these serve to continue to link our identity to that narrative.  Alumni gatherings, religious ceremonies and familial celebrations are examples of this.

Secondly there is the crucial element of language.  Language is not a form of communication, but rather a way of sharing meaning.  Consider the word “table”.  When you read this word what do you think of? Are you thinking of a flat rectangular oak top with four legs, a round piece of glass with a marble pedestal base, or a low slung metal framed laminated square which a student may sit at?  While our concept of a table may be the same, the construction of the image, of the knowledge, depends on the contexts we find ourselves in, even within a concept that we may agree on.  If we consider something like the word “success” then the concept itself varies between different communities, and even between different people.  This idea of what it means to succeed seems rather benign, but it is actually highly charged, informed by cultural background, as well as by everyday experience.  What you understand by this word may be totally different to what I understand and so shared meaning is not possible, especially when such concepts have deep emotional affiliations.

The point we are trying to make here is that when we share the context, when we share the experience, when we share the language that is embedded in that context, we are far more likely to have shared meaning and far more likely to feel included.  So it is, for example, that creation stories of indigenous people are understood by them, but not by us, at least not as they do. 

If we consider the above in the context of social studies classrooms, we begin to understand how when students can see (and be affirmed by) their people’s history in whatever form, ethnic, religious or social, their identity is validated. However, when their history is nowhere to be found or when the language that is used distorts that history, this can marginalise their identity. Of course, the constraints imposed on us by time, demographics and other curricular factors cannot account for every history, and we need to keep this in mind when we are considering how we act with the young people in our care.

We also need to be aware that both students and educators have identities which guide us in what we do and how we do it.  As we mentioned above, these identities are not created passively; we are impacted by what occurs on a daily basis.  However, while we may be subject to influences around us, we also have the capability to extract from experiences those events which reinforce the desired future.  Writing, as mentioned above, is an active process.  We choose what to write and as such we can choose to record those events which may justify a future anticipated action.  And it is the same with what we remember, or recall; we are selective in the way we construct the narrative that defines us. 

Nevertheless, our background does impact on the extent of such selectivity; memory is influenced by the backgrounds that we have. In fact, research from Kulkofsky et al. (2011) demonstrates that whether we live in individualist or collectivist societies has an impact on what we find important and therefore what we remember. People in individualist cultures are more likely to have flashbulb memories of events that are highly emotional and personally significant, while people in collectivist cultures are less likely to emphasize personal importance and the role of emotion. Furthermore, Chua et. al. (2005) find that people in individualist and collectivist cultures also literally look at situations differently. When given a picture of a scene, Westerners tend to look at focal objects while East Asians attend to contextual details. These differences therefore create different understandings of reality. 

As educators, we need to acknowledge that all the above play into the question of who a student is, how we come to know them and how we then interact with them to help them grow.

Students who consider themselves as failures, whether it is of self-esteem or self-worth may do so due to a number of reasons.  Many of these are outside of our control as educators.  Systemic failures, familial upheaval, disapproving authority figures, unrealistic academic expectations, trauma, media pressures, bullying and unsupportive caregivers can all erode the ways in which a young person sees herself. Where such factors have resulted in a narrative of failure, what we need to do is provide the experiences that we can so that this narrative does not remain the defining moment.  

People tend to think that the things that happened more recently are more likely to happen again.  This phenomenon, known as the availability heuristic, is a mental shortcut, a neurological response that uses information that comes to mind quickly and/or easily to assess the probability of future events. If, for example, we experience success in a new task, the memory of that success is more likely to inform our impressions of ourselves than previous failures. While there is a danger in this, in that we may overestimate such probability, there is also the scope, with repeated reinforcement, to change the narrative a person has of themselves.  Teachers recognise this.

It is not uncommon, for example, for teachers of students who are “struggling” to give them “easier work”.  Certainly there is ample research that tells us that for students to learn they need to begin such a learning stage from the foundation at which they are, and then be guided through the subsequent process, and so forth, in succeeding stages.  One does not throw a baby into a diving pool and expect them to swim. Once students experience success, goes the claim, they will feel better about themselves, they will look back at yesterday and realise that they could “do it”. This approach may also be applied to learning that might go beyond the curriculum, where highly competent students are extended beyond the limits of what they believe they can achieve.

On the surface, this seems like a viable way to shape students’ stories.  However, we need to be careful here as we are assuming that said memory will be encoded in the way we have planned it.  This assumption may be based on the belief that competency based success is powerful enough to push aside other factors that may be significant in the narrative that a student has created.  Moreover, we may not be aware of the influence that these other factors have in shaping the identity of the student.

The reliance on competency as a measure of worth is embedded in the schooling context, where constant reminders exist in the form of feedback, grades, reports, and awards.  However, if we consider how this context, which is to some degree shared between us and students, is only a slice of their experience, we can see how we may be rash in only emphasising this.  Students have lives well beyond the school fence, and these lives matter.  

One other thing to consider is the difference between self-esteem and self-worth. Our self-esteem is derived from our abilities, accomplishments, from the things we believe we can achieve as a measure of ourselves. It is a comparative measure, we compare ourselves to targets or the achievements of others.  Improving our proficiencies in certain areas such as in academics can therefore result in a rise in self-esteem, and failures can result in lowering of self-esteem. 

Self-worth on the other hand, is something different. It is a sense of belonging, that I as a person, regardless of achievement, deserve to be cared for and loved.  Self worth is embedded in how others treat us. Unfortunately, it is often tied to the approval we are given or denied by others. When we give out awards, for example, we are dedicating our efforts to the recipients of these awards, it might be that a child sitting in the audience is asking, “why don’t they care about me?”

Consequently, if we hope to influence and shape the narrative of our students for the better, we need to be attentive to them as people.  We need to consider how we can affirm their worth well beyond their academics.  Ideally, we would be able to listen to their story and understand the person, and thereby look for and act on those ways in which we can act so that they consider themselves, without reference to academic achievement, as worthy of our attention and care.  Ideally, this would mean that we have come from similar contexts and that when we talk with each other that we share the meaning of what we say.  But, as we know, this is not the way it is, and so we need to be careful of this, for in worst case circumstances we may be affirming a student in ways that have little or no effect on their overall self-worth.

Nevertheless, mindful of the effect of mental availability, there are ways that we can act within the constraints posed by the different contexts that inform our identities. If a student, or colleague, is having a bad day, the responses that are immediately available to them are those instances that support this idea. In a situation such as this, where a student is simply dwelling on the things that are going poorly, simply giving of our time and listening might well be something that will result in some feeling of value for the student, and shift the story, at least for now.  In the hands of an educator who has the knowledge of emotion and the proficiency to act, emotional labeling may well be then used as a strategy to identify the triggers that caused it, and find solutions to deal with it.

This then brings us to the importance of care.  When we care for students, we act in the present, and this present is where they recall the memories that fit the narratives they have created, the identity they have.  By changing the present, through responsible, sensitive and deliberate action, we can therefore establish a context that changes the story and, indirectly, those memories that are integral to the story.  In doing so, we can thereby influence the health and aspirations of the young people in our care.

This is what we educators do.


A word about this post. This reflection is a work created along with a fellow educator. It is informed strongly by our experiences working in schools with diverse populations. We believe the message that it holds is very important, for we believe that the thoughtful care of young people provides the opportunity to shape the world.

Chua, H. F., Leu, J., & Nisbett, R. E. (2005). Culture and Diverging Views of Social Events. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(7), 925–934. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167204272166

Kulkofsky, S., Wang, Q., Conway, M. A., Hou, Y., Aydin, C., Mueller-Johnson, K., & Williams, H. (2011). Cultural variation in the correlates of flashbulb memories: An investigation in five countries. Memory, 19(3), 233–240. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2010.551132

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