pieces of light the baby in the mirror

Remembering and re-remembering

This post will be a bit of a try-out for a talk I am giving at the Memory Maps: Image, Place and Story conference in Cambridge next week. I will be asking what the study of memory development in early childhood can tell us about how minds represent familiar landscapes and respond imaginatively to them. The conference, hosted by CRASSH, will bring together writers, literary scholars and visual artists (plus a token psychologist: me) to investigate how the people we are, culturally and socially, determine how we respond to place, both in present time and in memory. The Memory Maps project began as a collaboration between the V&A and the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex. You can view the project’s website here.

In time-honoured academic tradition, I won’t know exactly what I am going to say on this topic until I ascend to the lectern. But my starting point is going to be the question I raised in an earlier post, about the extent to which our memories of childhood can ever come to us in an entirely fresh, untainted state, or whether there is always some mediation by earlier memories and representations. This is the first of the two kinds of mediation that interest me: the process by which later memories are usually filtered, tainted and distorted by earlier acts of recall. 
There is a second kind of mediation of memory, though, which relates to the way our other systems of representing the world play a role in remembering and re-remembering. Foremost among the vehicles of this kind of mediation are the words we use in public, in social interaction, and in private, as speech directed to the self. Readers of this blog will know that I have a particular interest in Vygotsky’s views on these matters. As mentioned in an earlier post, Vygotsky’s theory shows us a way of understanding how language restructures cognition in many different domains of thought. In the realm of memory, one question is whether by talking about past events with children, and thus constructing the basis for a memory that is already mediated by language, we help them to get a firmer grasp on those memories. Sure enough, researchers have found just such a link, as this extract from Chapter 12 shows: 

The psychologists Katherine Nelson and Robyn Fivush have shown that children get involved in conversations about past events from soon after their second birthdays, and gradually take on ever-greater responsibility for joint storytelling about the past. Furthermore, parents’ willingness or skill in supporting these dialogues has been shown to have a big effect on children’s developing storytelling abilities. Longitudinal studies, following the same samples of families over periods of time, show that parents who have an ‘elaborative’ style in their interactions have children who produce more sophisticated memory narratives. Adopting an elaborative style means producing orienting information (details on where the event occurred, and who the actors in the drama were) and evaluative information (all the emotional details of how things looked, seemed and felt that gave the event personal significance). More than simply reiterating the crucial information, our efforts were about allowing Athena to step back into the event and re-experience it. This was her drama, and we were helping her to take centre stage.

In the book, I use a spatial metaphor for this process of a self’s finding its bearings in time. I liken it to a thread, looping from moment to moment like a string supports the beads of a necklace. The years of infancy and childhood are, as we well know, largely forgotten times. The escape from this amnesia seems to have much to do with children’s ability to use words to tell stories about their own lives, and adults’ sensitive support of this process. In this terra incognita, language gives children a golden thread to guide them.

1 comment on “Remembering and re-remembering

  1. Charles Fernyhough

    Wonderful, isn't it – making sense of her experience as she goes along!


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