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Memory, Brain, and BeliefReview - Memory, Brain, and Belief
by Daniel L. Schacter and Elaine Scarry (editors)
Harvard University Press, 2000
Review by James R. Beebe
Jan 28th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 5)

This collection of essays is based upon presentations delivered to a conference at Harvard University in 1997 entitled "Memory and Belief." The decidedly interdisciplinary anthology brings together researchers from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, literature and medicine to discuss the nature of memory and belief. Special attention is given to autobiographical recall and "false memories" (where subjects seem to vividly recollect events that never happened). Researchers present interesting results indicating that one?s own memories of the past are strongly influenced by one?s present beliefs, current experience and even nonconscious influences. The picture of memory presented throughout these essays is both fascinating and disquieting. One learns that the boundary between veridical memory and confabulation is at best fuzzy and at worst absent altogether. It is uncomfortable to be told that we do not know our own minds and past experiences as well as we think we do, but it makes for captivating reading.

The essays that have been written by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists can read by any educated person who is willing to put forward a little effort and concentration. Although they are less technical and more accessible than the average contribution to a scholarly journal, they are not light reading. It is not recommended for those who want a simple overview of psychological theories of memory. The essays generally presuppose knowledge of the various types of memory?e.g., 'semantic memory? (memory of facts) and 'episodic memory' (memory of past events or experiences)?and some familiarity with contemporary theories of cognition. However, because this collection brings together some of the top researchers on memory and belief to discuss the latest developments on these topics, it is an excellent book for libraries to own. Students and scholars whose research interests coincide with this book will find it a great resource. Each essay surveys a great deal of research and can provide interested scholars with helpful bibliographical information. The collection aims to be a report from the front lines of research on memory.

After a brief introduction by the editors, the anthology begins with a shallow, unilluminating essay by Chris Westbury and Daniel Dennett. They survey philosophical accounts of memory from centuries past and remark briefly upon the vagaries of defining 'belief.' The essay looks to be more of a way to get Dennett's widely recognized name into the anthology than an attempt to make a substantive scholarly contribution. Marcia K. Johnson and Carol L. Raye ("Cognitive and Brain Mechanisms of False Memories and Beliefs") then discuss the cognitive processes that give rise to everyday distortions of memory (e.g., remembering that a conversation took place in a restaurant when it actually took place in a car), erroneous beliefs (e.g., racist generalizations), confabulations (e.g., remembering a trip on a spacecraft), and delusions (e.g., believing that someone is controlling your thoughts).

V. S. Ramachandran ("Memory and the Brain: New Lessons from Old Syndromes") examines cases of anosognosia (denial of one's own paralysis), phantom limbs, and Capgras syndrome (believing that close acquaintances are really imposters) to see what they can teach us about human memory. Chris Frith and Raymond J. Dolan ("The Role of Memory in the Delusions Associated with Schizophrenia") look at the various roles that dysfunctions of memory play a role in generating the false perceptions and false beliefs of schizophrenics.

"Implicit Stereotypes and Memory: The Bounded Rationality of Social Beliefs" by Mahzarin R. Banaji and R. Bhaskar paints a very interesting but equally disturbing picture of human memory. They write,

social psychologists have moved from the view that stereotypes and prejudice reflect the warped beliefs and preferences of distasteful individuals who threaten harmonious social existence, to the view that such processes are best considered the unhappy and even tragic outcomes of the ordinary workings of human cognition. (p. 141)

Banaji and Bhaskar do not take the fact that social stereotypes have a natural ground to mean that racist, sexist and classist behavior should be excused. On the contrary, they argue persuasively and at length that scientists performing research on stereotypes have a moral obligation to highlight the tremendous difference in moral significance between the application of stereotypes to inanimate objects and the application of stereotypes to other human beings.

Howard Eichenbaum and J. Alexander Bodkin ("Belief and Knowledge as Distinct Forms of Memory") investigate the mnemonic consequences of hippocampal damage and dysfunction of cortical-hippocampal interactions. Although their experimental research seems interesting in its own right, its significance is clouded by the ill-chosen interpretations they give of that research. They write,

We propose that the difference between knowledge and belief in their purest forms is that knowledge is a disposition to behave that is constantly subject to corrective modification and updating by experience, while belief is a disposition to behave in a manner that is resistant to correction by experience. (p. 177)

Scholars are free to take ordinary words (e.g., 'belief' and 'knowledge') and give them technical meanings that differ from common usage. However, Eichenbaum and Bodkin claim, "These distinctions between knowledge and belief are supported by common definitions" (p. 178). They are convinced that they have captured the ordinary person's concepts of belief and knowledge?a suggestion that is not only false but also laughable. If one can get past this interpretation of their research, one will find that Eichenbaum and Bodkin have interesting research to report.

"Where in the Brain Is the Awareness of One's Past?" by Endel Tulving and Martin Lepage is one of the most well-written and accessible essays in the anthology. They explain differences between distinct forms of memory with respect to time-orientation and the subject feelings of awareness that accompany such memories. Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson, in "Constructing and Appraising Past Selves," have written an essay that?like Banaji and Bhaskar's above?is both very interesting and disturbing. Ross and Wilson show that much of the autobiographical information people give is pure fabrication and is highly susceptible to manipulation. Subjects overestimate the degree to which they differ from past selves and their peers, denigrating past selves to make themselves feel better about their present selves. One of the central messages of Ross and Wilson's article is that autobiography is a fluid, contextual, constructive affair rather than a neutral reporting of past events and facts. Katherine Nelson's "Memory and Belief in Development" discusses how capacities for different types of memory arise in the cognitive development of children. She addresses the phenomenon of 'infantile amnesia' identified by Freud, reports on results of memory-related experiments performed on two- to five-year olds, and connects this research up with the current 'theory of mind' debate (concerning the question of how children first learn that other people have mental states that differ from their own).

The final section of the collection brings in perspectives from the humanities in an attempt to round out the range of perspectives offered on memory. "Autobiography, Identity, and the Fictions of Memory" by Paul John Eakin and "Autobiography as Moral Battleground" by Sissela Bok discuss literary works?both autobiographical and fictional?that deal with the same issues addressed in the earlier contributions by experimental researchers. They draw attention to types of autobiography?e.g., the memoirs of famous people?that are more familiar than the autobiographical reports elicited under experimental conditions discussed in the other essays. While I applaud the interdisciplinary spirit exhibited, these two essays do not seem to connect up with the empirical research in the volume as well or as fully as I hoped they would.

Overall, Memory, Brain, and Belief is an interesting and useful contribution to the growing body of research on memory, belief and autobiography.

© 2002 James R. Beebe

James R. Beebe is a philosophy instructor at Louisiana State University. His primary interests are in epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy of cognitive science.


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