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The Human Ecology of Memory


Mnemosyne, one of the Titans of Greek mythology, Goddess of Memory and, by Zeus,  mother of the Muses. According to Mary Carruthers (1996), memory was the most noble aspect of ancient and medieval rhetoric.  

Oil painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1881.  Collection of the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington.  Gift of Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft.  For more on Rosetti and the other pre-Raphaelite painters, see "Incurably Romantic" by Doug Stewart, Smithsonian, February 2007.

Link to a French translation by Kate Bondareva.
Link to a Belorussian translation by Irina Orlova.
Link to a Bulgarian translation by Oleg Segal.
Link to a Georgian translation by
B Konopka.
Link to Russian translation by Airat Izrafilov.
Link to Spanish translation by Claudia Monteys.
Link to Korean translation by Edward Shin.

Memory is a biological function, enabling behaving organisms to learn from experience.  It is also a faculty of mind, allowing people to retain knowledge, reflect on the past, and anticipate the future.

Autobiographical memory is a crucial component of the individual's personality and identity, and a body of shared knowledge and memory binds together dyads, groups, organizations, institutions, societies, and entire cultures. 

Through neuropsychological and neuroscientific analyses of memory, psychology has been connected "down" to the biological and physical sciences.  The primary goal of this project is to use the theme of memory to connect psychology "up" to the other social sciences and to the humanities. 


Foundational Documents

Read "Memory Research: The Convergence of Theory and Practice" John F. Kihlstrom.  Closing lecture presented at the 3rd Practical Aspects of Memory Conference held at the University of Maryland, College Park, August 1994.  This paper adds a new principle, "The Interpersonal Principle", to a list of seven principles commonly accepted in psychological research on memory.  An edited version of this paper was published in: D. Hermann, M. Johnson, C. McEvoy, C. Hertzog, & P. Hertel (Eds.) Basic and Applied Memory: Theory in Context (Vol. 1, pp. 5-25).  Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1996.

Read "Memory, Autobiography, History".  Expanded and updated version of a Distinguished Lecture presented at the annual meeting of the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association, April 2000.  The paper calls for the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary (they're different) study of memory across the social sciences, humanities, and arts, complementing the neuroscientific approach now popular. 

Read "'So That We Might Have Roses in December": The Functions of Autobiographical Memory".  Commentary in a special issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology on the functions of autobiographical memory, edited by Susan Bluck (2009).  

Link to Lingua Franca's 1996 list of "Breakthrough Books" on Collective Memory.

Link to the "Interdisciplinary Study of Memory" webpage maintained by John Sutton at Macquarie University: http://www.phil.mq.edu.au/staff/jsutton/Memory.htmlLink to material on Sutton's book, Philosophy and Memory Traces: Descartes to Connectionism (Cambridge, 1998): http://www.phil.mq.edu.au/staff/jsutton/PhilosophyandMemoryTraces.htm.


Toward a Human Ecology of Memory

"Human ecology" has been defined as "the study of the physical, cultural, economic, social, and aesthetic environment that surrounds human beings from birth to death" (Alison Schneider in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/13/200).  The relevance to the environmental movement is obvious, but these days the term is most often seen, along with "Family and Consumer Science" and similar terms, as an updated, less stereotypical, more professional (and scientific) label for the "home economics" schools found on many state university campuses (see V.B. Vincenti et al.,  Rethinking Home Economics: Women and the History of a Profession, Cornell University Press, 1997).  For example, there are Colleges of Human Ecology at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin, among many other campuses.  

But before home economics took on the label, and even before the environmentalist movement began, the Society for Human Ecology was established in 1955 by Harold Wolff and Lawrence Hinkle, neurologists at Cornell Medical College, to study "man's relation to his social environment as perceived by him" (Hinkle et al, American Journal of Psychiatry, 1957, 114).  promote the development of interdisciplinary social science .  As such, the Society (later renamed the Human Ecology Fund, and disbanded in 1965) represented an early effort at promoting cross-disciplinary research uniting psychology, medicine, and the social sciences.  The Society became somewhat notorious for its involvement  with CIA "mind control" experiments at the height of the Cold War of the late 1950s and early 1960s, as detailed in John Marks' book, The Search for the Manchurian Candidate (Times Books, 1979).  Nothing of importance ever came from the CIA connection, but Society funds also supported groundbreaking research in the behavioral and social sciences (sometimes without the investigators' knowledge of the CIA connection). In Marks' words, the Society "helped liberate the behavioral sciences from the world of rats and cheese" (p. 162).  

As our colleagues in "home economics" realized, a term like human ecology is just too evocative to be allowed to languish in the shadow of its somewhat checkered history.  Accordingly, this website promotes the interdisciplinary study of memory -- not as a biological function, but rather as a human activity, an activity of individuals, groups, institutions, societies, and cultures.  The human ecology of memory studies remembering and forgetting in relation to "the physical, cultural, economic, social, and aesthetic environment that surrounds human beings from birth to death".  

Link to an online collection of lists, articles, and occasional essays on various topics relating to the human ecology of memory.


Interdisciplinary or Multidisciplinary?

In multidisciplinary studies, separate disciplines undertake to study a particular topic, each from their own perspective.  In interdisciplinary studies, the approach itself blends different disciplines into a new, integrated whole (see "Coveting Your Neighbor's Discipline" by Marjorie Garber, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/12/01; a version of the essay also appears in her book, Academic Instincts (Princeton University Press, 2000).  As Garber quotes Roland Barthes (1972):

"Interdisciplinary studies... do not merely confront already constituted disciplines (none of which, as a matter of fact, consents to leave off).  In order to do interdisciplinary work, it is not enough to take a 'subject" (a theme) and to arrange two or three sciences around it.  Interdisciplinary study consists in creating a new object, which belongs to no one."

Although most academics are trained in only a single discipline, the human ecology of memory requires an interdisciplinary effort that transcends guild barriers.  



Here are a few books and other sources that capture the point of view represented by this project:


Other Websites


"American Memory" Project at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has a web page, "American Memory", which serves as a gateway to primary source materials relating to the history and culture of the United States, including items in more than 100 historical collections.  Link to the "American Memory" homepage.


Center for the Study of History and Memory

At Indiana University (formerly the Oral History Research Center), "devoted to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of memories and oral traditions", with "a special interest in American history in general and the history of Indiana and the Midwest in particular" (from the Center's homepage).  Link to the Center's website.


Collective Memory Course Website

Link to the website of a Freshman Seminar taught at UC Berkeley on "Collective Memory".


Exploratorium's "Guide Through the Labyrinth of Memory"

The Exploratorium, San Francisco's interactive museum of science, art, and human perception, hosted a major exhibition on "Memory" from May 22, 1998 to January 10, 1999.  The exhibit, designed by Prof. Arthur P. Shimamura of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues, was divided into six thematic sections:

The exhibit has ended, but its website remains available.  Link to the Exploratorium's "Memory" website.


Lingua Franca's List of "Breakthrough Books" on Collective Memory

Lingua Franca, a magazine about academic life that became a somewhat hip, irreverent complement to the Chronicle of Higher Education, regularly published lists of "breakthrough books" in various areas.  In its March/April 1996 issue, the subject was collective memory, or "the ways in which social groups commemorate and transmit their pasts".   Click here to view the list.

Unfortunately, at the end of 2001 Lingua Franca was forced to suspend publication for economic reasons (see "A Journal of Academic Life Halts Publication" by David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times, 10/18/01).  Fortunately, the magazine's website, containing a complete archive of materials and many links to other related websites, remains available.  Link to Lingua Franca's website.


Luce Program in Individual and Collective Memory  

Click here to go to the homepage of Pascal Boyer, Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University, St. Louis.


Memory Arena

Link to the "Memory Arena" website that is part of the Psychology Arena maintained by Psychology Press to provide information to "professionals and researchers in the area of memory and memory disorders".  (Psychology Press, part of the Taylor & Francis group of publishers, offers some of the best books on memory available.)

This page last updated 08/05/2015.