Context is Everything: The Nature of Memory

  • Article by: Katy Read
  • July 31, 1999 - 11:00 PM

Does your memory of an event -- a car accident, your first kiss, or the first moon landing -- change when you tell about it? Does it matter whether you tell it to your best friend or to a jury or to the readers of your autobiography?

Absolutely, says author Susan Engel in "Context Is Everything: The Nature of Memory."

Engel, who teaches psychology at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., argues that memories are less immutable than they seem. Like fragile museum pieces, they're subject to change whenever they're exposed to light and air. And once returned to storage, she suggests, those altered memories can change a sense of self, which is largely based on recollection.

"We constantly revise our own recollections in response to what others think and say and feel," she writes. "In this sense memory is at once the most deeply personal and private aspect of experience and simultaneously the means by which we extend ourselves beyond our own mental boundaries."

Though the subject of memory has engaged thinkers for millennia, it's a hotter topic than ever. Just consider the current popularity of memoirs and the controversy over the validity of recovered memories of childhood abuse. Engel explores those subjects and more, evoking the cultural, social and interpersonal aspects of memory. Drawing from psychology and literature, she quotes authors ranging from Jane Austen to Everest climber Jon Krakauer, from Frederick Douglass to Elie Weisel. She also looks at current events, speculating how historians and the public will recall the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Readers seeking insights into brain physiology should look elsewhere.

Context isn't everything  

If there's a weakness in the book, it's the thesis itself. The importance of context, while a convenient way to look at memory, seems at once a little too intangible and self-evident. Occasionally, it inspires ponderous discussions -- for example, a four-page transcript of an anonymous judge's jury instructions, followed by an exhaustive parsing that yields few insights.

But these less useful passages are outnumbered by enlightening ones. Engel provides handy concepts, such as the "template memory," a single recollection that represents -- sometimes unwittingly -- a broader life theme. She illustrates that with an example from her own life: an often-told anecdote about a tonsillectomy that she realized encapsulated her anxiety over having to choose between her divorced parents.

And she explores some fascinating ideas, including the deceptively mundane notion that a memory's meaning is in the details: "Many people express who they are by conveying the details of their life; those details are usually what makes an autobiography interesting. Those little scenes, rather than the grand events, are what capture for teller and listener alike the specificity, uniqueness and significance of the person's life."

Engel's acute examination of memory's cultural role will give readers new insight, whether examining their own recollections or those they share with others.


-- Katy Read is a Minneapolis freelance writer and former reporter for the Duluth News-Tribune and the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

Context is Everything: The Nature of Memory  

  •   By: Susan Engel.

  •   Publisher: W.H. Freeman and Co., 188 pages, $23.95.

  •   Review: Although hinged on a slightly thin premise -- that the circumstances under which you describe a memory influence the memory itself -- Engel's book is, overall, a varied and fascinating study of what our memories mean, to others and to ourselves.

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