Memoirs of a memory: From neurons to collective
Aline Cordonnier (1) and Valentine Vanootighem (2)
(1) UCLouvain; (2) ULiège
Defining memories – even autobiographical ones – is a more dangerous work than it seems. Memories are ephemeral; they come and go, are forgotten or reconstructed; they twist and change; they update. Their impact can be important, as they help us navigate the world around us, build relational networks, make decisions. But sometimes they seem to turn on us as we get older or as we begin to doubt our own memories. They can affect our well-being, our relationships, our sense of self. Memory is therefore a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Throughout this symposium we will see four different approaches to the study of episodic memories. First, David Stawarczyk guides us into the underworld of neural activity patterns. Using neuroimaging techniques, he examines the role of the posterior default network in memory updating. In the second presentation, Valentine Vanootighem addresses the intriguing case of nonbelieved memories. She examines the occurrence of memories for events that people no longer believe happened to them and compares their characteristics with classic autobiographical memories. Dirk Hermans then takes a psychopathological approach to the functions of memory and considers how the consistency of narratives closely relates to depressive symptoms and differences in well-being. Finally, Aline Cordonnier delves into the family memory of resistance and collaboration during the Second World War. She examines the functions of these family stories as they are transmitted from one generation to the next. In these four lectures, we will thus travel from neurons to collective memory.
Speaker 1: Neural activity patterns reinstatement, healthy aging, and memory for change in everyday activities
David Stawarczyk (1), Joset A. Etzel (2), Abraham Z. Snyder (2), Christopher N. Wahlheim (3) and Jeffrey M. Zacks (2)
(1) ULiège; (2) Washington University in St. Louis, USA; (3) University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA
When encountering new events, memories of relevant past experiences can guide expectations about what will happen. When unexpected changes occur, this can lead to prediction errors with consequences for comprehension and subsequent memory. Current models of memory updating propose that people must first detect and register that features of the environment have changed, then encode the new event features and integrate them with relevant memories of past experiences to form configural memory representations. Aging could potentially impair each of these steps. Using fMRI pattern analysis, we investigated these mechanisms in healthy young and older adults. In the scanner, participants first saw a movie depicting a series of everyday events, as if following a day in the life of the actor. Later, they watched another movie of the day’s events where some scenes proceeded exactly as before, while others began similarly and then ended with a slightly different activity. Crucially, before watching the last part of each scene, the movie stopped, and participants were instructed to mentally replay its ending based on the previous movie. Three days later, participants were asked to retrieve the activity details. Individual differences in neural activity pattern reinstatement in posterior default network areas during mental replay were associated with better memory for changed features in young adults. This association was weaker in the older adults. This finding suggests posterior DN areas contribute to memory for changes by reinstating previous event features and that older adults are less able to use reinstatement to perform memory updating.
Speaker 2: Autobiographical memory coherence on the intersection between well-being, meaning making and psychopathology
Dirk Hermans (1)
(1) KU Leuven
Our autobiographical memories serve several functions. First, they help us navigate through the complexities of life. Remembering past experiences can guide us in new similar situations. Second, the collection of personal memories provides a basis for creating and maintaining a stable self-identity. Finally, autobiographical memories are the bread and butter of social interaction and are the fundament of social bonding. We build stories and life stories that are told and listened to. Given these functions, it will be clear that disruptions or deficits in the recall or narration of autobiographical memories can have a detrimental impact on well-being and psychopathology. In this presentation we will focus on one such variable: autobiographical (or: narrative) coherence. Indeed, individual differences in the coherence of autobiographical memories are related to differences in well-being, presence of depressive symptoms, and the impact of negative life events. We will present recent data from our lab and will elaborate on a broader model of memory coherence and psychopathology.
Speaker 3: The frequency of nonbelieved memories
Valentine Vanootighem (1)
The phenomenon through which an autobiographical memory is no longer believed to be a representation of an event that really happened, despite a vivid recollection of the event, has been termed “nonbelieved memory” (NBM). Previous research found that about 20% of people spontaneously report vivid NBMs, indicating that NBMs are not rare. This conclusion comes from studies in which participants had to search without delay for such events from memory. However, we hypothesized that people may not be able people to recall NBMs immediately and that additional time may be required to retrieve them. To further examine the frequency of this phenomenon, participants aged between 40 and 80 years were given 5 days to report one or more memories, describe the reason for withdrawing their belief and indicate when the events occurred. Whenever an NBM was retrieved, participants also had to describe an age-matched believed memory (BM) so that the characteristics of both types of memories could be compared. In this presentation, the results of the study will be presented and the accessibility of NBMs will be discussed.
Speaker 4: Individual and collective functions of family memories of the Second World War
Aline Cordonnier (1)
We are more than our autobiographical memories. While past research has discussed in depth the functions of autobiographical thinking, few studies have examined how vicarious memories from close others — in particular family members — can impact us. We create a sense of self by recalling personal events, as well as locating it within family identity, which builds on stories from our family past. We share personal and family narratives to bond or teach others, but also to help us make decisions. Vicarious memories therefore serve similar functions to autobiographical memories. But when these family stories become part of collective narratives, they can have major impacts on individuals’ social identity, inter- and intragroup relations and their interpretation of the world. Accordingly, individual and collective memory have parallel functions. In our study, we met with families with an ancestor who either resisted during the Second World War or was judged for collaboration after the war. We interviewed participants from three different generations and asked them whether it was important for them to know and transmit their family stories about the war and why. Answers were coded as serving personal or collective functions. Within these two categories, functions were coded as self, social and directive. Results show that these war-related family stories tend to serve important functions for the self and for social relationships at the individual level and more directive functions at the collective level. Stories of the resistance also seemed to have a more collective impact than stories of the collaboration.