Merlin Donald: Explaining the evolutionary distance between human and animal memory
The methods and terms used in studying human memory are very different from those used to study animal memory. Explicit memory, with its subclasses of episodic, autobiographical, and semantic memory, is virtually absent in animals. This has led to the widely-held theory that humans evolved two radically new memory systems, episodic and semantic memory.
However, there is a simpler alternative that is more in agreement with data from neuroscience: that the unique features of human memory are the product of a deep ancestral brain adaptation that gave human ancestors a pathway for voluntary recall. What animal memory lacked was not so much storage capacity as a mechanism of voluntary access, or retrieval.
Evidence on human evolution suggests that voluntary memory access evolved in two successive adaptations. The first adaptation entailed a radical change to procedural memory, involving the refinement of skill at least 1.8 million years ago, and possibly earlier. The Acheulian toolkit from that time is still difficult to manufacture for a modern anthropologist. It was typically made from the hardest, sharpest materials in nature, flint and obsidian. These tools permitted human ancestors to make other tools from softer materials such as wood, hide, vegetal matter and bone. It was this “master toolkit” that carried humans through a very challenging series of climate changes and migrations.
Viewed from the standpoint of cognitive science, the manufacture of such tools depends upon the accurate voluntary recall of previous performances, toward their gradual improvement. This core “mimetic” capacity is both supra-modal and metacognitive in nature, inasmuch as it extends to the whole voluntary motor repertoire, and depends upon self-monitoring. It lies at the heart of modern activities learned by apprenticeship, such as the skilled trades, dance and singing skill, and acting.
A second evolutionary step came much later, peaking only in anatomically modern humans: the rapid formation and expansion of mindsharing networks. This was based on interactive capacities that greatly increased the importance of culture in cognitive evolution. The outcome was the eventual emergence of spoken language and a reorganization of memory that enabled explicit semantic and episodic recall. However, these later developments would have been impossible to evolve without the platform provided by the earlier evolutionary modification of a recall pathway from procedural memory.
Qi Wang: How Is the Self Remembered? The Autobiographical Self in Cultural Contexts
People from different cultures often tell diverse stories about their past experiences. Research in the past two decades has revealed systematic differences in the content, structure, accessibility, and developmental origin of autobiographical memory across cultures. I propose a cultural dynamic theory of autobiographical memory to account for the differences. The theory posits that autobiographical remembering takes place in the dynamic transaction between an active individual and his changing environment; is situated in culturally conditioned time and space over a multitude of timescales; and develops in the process of children acquiring cultural knowledge about the self and the purpose of the past through early socialization.
David C. Rubin: The phenomenology, behavior, and neural basis of autobiographical memory
I will integrate our work over the last decade in developing a model of autobiographical memory in the minds and brains of undergraduates, older adults, and clinical populations. In the model autobiographical memories are constructed from basic systems of the mind and brain including the individual senses, emotion, narrative, and language. Support for the systems and their integration comes from phenomenology, behavior, neuropsychological studies of damage and brain imaging. Results from these sources support the claims: that involuntary memories use the same systems except they lack (by definition) intentional search and therefore can make less use of emotion regulation; that changes in autobiographical memory in PTSD are mostly driven by increased emotional intensity, not narrative incoherence; and that the spatial nature of events are key to the sense of reliving and time travel.
Patricia Bauer: The Role of Forgetting in the Process of Remembering: A Developmental Perspective
The development of memory is one typically associated with positive events—neural developments, cognitive developments, and social and cultural influences contribute to positive changes that enhance the ability to remember the past. Yet the development of mature patterns of remembering also involves forgetting. Most notably, forgetting is implicated in achievement of the adult distribution of autobiographical memories across the lifespan, a distribution characterized by a relative paucity of memories from the first years of life (childhood amnesia). The talk will feature data illustrating gradual changes in rates of forgetting over the first decade of life, ultimately resulting in the adult distribution of autobiographical memories. Links to neural developments and associated changes in memory processes will be forged.
Jonathan Smallwood: Escaping the here and now: a component process view of self-generated thought
Thoughts and feelings often do not arise from the events taking place in the here and now and understanding the cognitive and neural basis behind such self-generated thought is an important aim for cognitive neuroscience. The current talk will develop a component process model of states of self-generated thought and will consider how they can be best accommodated into models of cognitive neuroscience. Evidence will be presented that these states are a heterogeneous rather than homogenous category of experience and their relationship with different brain networks will be considered. This talk will also consider evidence that a primary function of these states are to allow the consideration of information that is not derived from perception. This capacity to mentally escape from the here and now, and consider information that is self-generated by the agent reflects a form of freedom from immediacy which in turn allows for greater flexibility in thought and behavior over relatively long time frames.
Karl Szpunar: Remembering extended study sequences
Extended periods of study are subject to various processes that can have strong influences on what is ultimately remembered. As one common example, students frequently express frustration that information presented toward the end of an extended period of study is more difficult to remember than information presented at the start of a study sequence. This ubiquitous mental phenomenon, commonly referred to as proactive interference, will be the focus of my talk. Specifically, I will outline how proactive interference can hamper memory for a variety of materials including: simple word lists, names of new people, written prose, and classroom lectures. Moreover, I will outline a new line of research demonstrating how interpolating extended periods of study with memory tests can temper the negative influence of proactive interference and foster accurate remembering. Evidence from behavioral and brain imaging studies will be discussed.