Retrospection & repression

This Remembrance Day, you’ll be asked to recall the past. Postscript investigates how you’ll do it

As we continue to accumulate new experiences, older memories are pushed out of the brain or stored in our long term memory to make room for new ones.
As we continue to accumulate new experiences, older memories are pushed out of the brain or stored in our long term memory to make room for new ones.

Why is it that my grandmother can remember details of her childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland years ago and I can’t remember what I had for dinner last Tuesday night?

Memory, and the brain’s graduated process that controls it, isn’t as difficult to understand as it may seem, and at this time of the year when our ability to remember is at a premium, both my memory and my grandmother’s are well worth exploring.

Hans Dringenberg, an associate professor of psychology at Queen’s, explains memory as a physiological process of picking and choosing.

“To me, the whole process is one of filtering,” he said.

“Our senses detect all kinds of things. Some are remembered, some are not. The brain picks small pieces and stores it as a memory.” Things we pay particular attention to are more likely to stay, he said, while things we find boring or redundant never get past our short term memory—a phenomenon that anyone who has ever sat through a mind-numbing lecture can attest to.

“Weeks from now, you probably won’t remember the paint color of my office,” Dringenberg said to me during our interview, gesturing to the pale yellow of his walls. “Things you pay attention to are the things that stay.” According to Dringenberg, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is where most short-term memories are stored. After a period of time, more significant long-term memories are passed on to the hippocampus, and eventually permanent memories are relegated to a final destination, perhaps somewhere in the neocortex. But besides attention, there are other factors that determine whether or not something stays in our memory for the long term.

“Things we really remember well are the things that have emotional significance for us,” Dringenberg said. “I remember exactly how I met my wife.” An emotional tag is associated with especially positive or negative events, causing them to be remembered, sometimes for a lifetime. Dringenberg gave the example of 9/11, an emotionally upsetting event for many. Most people can remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news: what they were eating, who they were with and what they did shortly after, even if they can’t remember what they did the day before.

I decided to interview my 80 year-old grandmother, Maria Verstraten, about her memories to get an idea of the events that made such an impression they still stand out over 60 years later. My grandmother grew up in the Netherlands and was 12 when the Nazi occupation of the country began. Would her memories correspond with Professor Dringenberg’s ‘emotional significance’ theories?

“It was overwhelming that other people came into the country,” my grandmother told me during our phone interview. “There was bombing, no food ... [the Nazi’s] took our food. People were hungry and had big bellies.” One emotion that seems to be attached to a lot of her memories is fear.

“We lived on the north side and they bombed the east side,” she said. “We had to be home early, and there was no light … we had to hang black things in front of the windows so the English couldn’t see where the Germans were and bomb them. The whole city was dark. You could hear whistling and would know the bomb wouldn’t hit you. Later you would go and see and half the street would be gone. It was scary.” The idea that intense emotional experiences somehow make a memory more permanent makes sense. According to Dringenberg, every memory, good or bad, is a physical change in the brain. Neuronal synapses form when something significant happens, physically altering the appearance of the brain.

When something triggers these cells, such as a smell or a word, the neuronal synapses fire and become active—recollection occurs. But what happens when a person is unable to remember emotionally upsetting or traumatizing events? Do they really forget, or are these memories still retrievable?

“This is controversial,” Dringenberg said. “My tendency would be to say that it’s suppressed. The brain has the ability to put up a buffer so that the memory is not there all the time. Therapists can often aid in bringing such memories back.” A good analogy would be the commonly experienced tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. This occurs when you’re trying unsuccessfully to remember the name of a person or a book only to randomly recall hours later, often while doing something completely different.

“You can’t always access memories, but they can still come back,” Dringenberg said.

My grandmother agreed. Some events during wartime were so upsetting that she experienced a temporary black out.

“You have to go on with your life and do the best you can. … I remembered after the war,” she told me.

“I was young. When you’re in the middle of it you just have to do it.” But once they came back, many of my grandmother’s memories from over 60 years ago were far more powerful than events that happened in the last 10 years.

“You never forget that time,” she said quietly.

Dr. Rebecca Manley, assistant professor of history at Queen’s, has studied the memory of war in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. She said memory is not only an individual capacity but also a social capacity shaped by broader institutions.

“The last 15 years of scholarship have seen a real increase in interest in memory,” she said. “Historians are as interested in writing about what happened as they are in writing about the memory of what happened.

“Commemorations such as those we partake in on November 11th play an important role in shaping the way that individuals, families and society more broadly remember the past.

“Commemorations often set the framework for individual memory.” But, Manley said, when an event such as a war is remembered socially, aspects of it are inevitably forgotten and sometimes censored from the story, similar to the filtering processes of individual memory. This can often be a by-product of its politicization, she said.

“There’s a politics to memory,” said Manley. “Interpretations of war are one of the battlegrounds on which political divides are played out. Interpretations of the Vichy Regime that ruled France during World War II are a case in point. For a long time, the regime was represented as the work of a select number of people, and the mass of French men and women were presented as resisters. The fact that much of the discriminatory legislation passed by members of the Vichy government was not imposed on them by the Nazis but stemmed, rather, from their own conservative convictions was conveniently forgotten as De Gaulle sought to redeem France by celebrating the Resistance. What was at stake, in this case as in so many others, was not simply the interpretation of the past but the contemporary identity of the country.”

“It was actually an American historian—Robert Paxton—who was the first to say that this was a collaborationist regime. It took an outsider to make the French begin to grapple with the memory of Vichy.”

The scholastic involvement of those external to the experience of war-time events is one of the most delicate and reactive elements in writing the history of war, Manley said, especially when the collective memory of a nation is being assessed.

“For historians, it is sometimes difficult to challenge the perspectives of those who lived through the experiences in question,” she said. “Many people remember things in particular ways and they might find that historians’ treatments of subjects don’t always conform to the way they remember them, and they can find this troubling, especially when we talk about traumatic events in the 20th century, such as war or the Holocaust.”

Manley also pointed to the immeasurable influence of the imagination on acts of mourning and remembrance.

“Images of war that are propagated in literature, painting and film often shape the way individuals then conceive of those events. To take a very concrete example from Russian history, still photos from films on the October Revolution have become stand-ins for the actual events.

“On a less obvious and direct level, it happens all the time. History writing is only one small part of what creates a national memory; cultural production is an important part of that.”  

—With files from Taylor Burns

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.