Chris Walker and Jasmin Shellenbarger
Memory is crucial to our existence and survival because it allows us to make accurate predictions of future events by recalling similar past experiences (Baddeley, Eysenck, & Anderson, 2020). However, for our brains to begin forming memories, it must first undergo extensive development. We entered into this world with limited knowledge but boundless potential to learn (Baddeley et al., 2020). Our brains were in the end stages of neurogenesis, the creation of new nerve cells, and the beginning stages of synaptogenesis (Keil, 2014). Synaptogenesis is the process of neurons communicating with one another and building connections through electrical and chemical signals (Baddeley et al., 2020; Keil, 2014). While developing in the womb, our central nervous system (CNS) increases its number of nerve cells at a rate of about 250,000 per minute and continues to do so until there are roughly 1 billion (Keil, 2014). These extraordinary amounts of cells allow us to adapt and survive in nearly every type of environment we are born into (Keil, 2014). Through the process of synaptogenesis, our brain can consolidate the information we are receiving into cell assemblies that form schemas (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kesteren & Meeter, 2020). Cell assemblies are structural areas of the brain created due to the repetitive use of particular neural pathways that harness information (Kesteren, & Meeter, 2020). The creation of neural pathways occurs through repeated use; this is known as Hebb’s Rule, which states, “neurons that fire together, wire together” (Doidge, 2017). The information we receive through our sensory receptors that become consolidated within our brain becomes the memories we recall (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kesteren & Meeter, 2020).
How we initially remember past experiences and how we retain them is an area of study that memory researchers have been working on for several decades and are still in the process of understanding (Kleinknecht, 2020). Knowledge of how memory works is ever-changing due to the continuation of technological advances that allow researchers to peer into the brain and better understand how it functions and forms memories (Baddeley, Eysenck, & Anderson, 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020).
Multiple scans are used within neuroscience to detect neural activity, such as EEGs, MEGs, and PETs. Still, one scan allows researchers to analyze brain activity more precisely than the others, known as multi-voxel pattern analysis (MVPA) (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020). This scan presents the researchers with visual representations of the brain, divided into small areas of space, known as voxels (Baddeley et al., 2020). Through powerful machine learning techniques, researchers can look at regularities in the brain when the same event is presented repeatedly (Baddeley et al., 2020). The computer uses this method to gradually build up a model of the brain’s response to particular stimuli presented to the participant (Baddeley et al., 2020).
A positive aspect of this research method on memory is that it allows researchers to get a perspective of how a living brain is functioning in the present moment while at the same time alleviating the use of invasive and risky surgeries. A couple of downsides to this research method is that it is incredibly tedious and time-consuming. Additionally, we do not know for sure if the data provided is accurate; researchers can only make inferences on the data they receive. Still, the data’s accuracy will be dependent on the reliability and validity of their experiments (Kleinknecht, 2020). These are only a couple of reasons why increasing our knowledge of memory and brain functionality is slow and ever-changing. It also provides an example of how researchers have gained great insight into how our brains function.
The utilization of case studies is another way for researchers to gain information on brain functioning and how memory works (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020). A case study is where an individual or small group of individuals have something genetically unique about them or they have experienced a traumatic brain injury, that researchers can use to analyze its difference compared to a particular population. (Baddeley et al., 2020). The significant impact case studies can have on research is best seen in the case study with HM, who grew up with life-threatening seizures (Simon 2007). His doctor, who did not know what the hippocampus did at the time, made the executive decision to remove his hippocampus to prevent future detrimental convulsions (Simon, 2007). His treatment worked but had an insalubrious effect on HM by preventing him from formulating new memories (Simon, 2007). It did not matter what they tried; his psychologists found that HM was incapable of being taught new concepts (Simon 2007). He could not remember even the most elementary things, such as what he had for breakfast that morning (Simon 2007). His brain was no longer capable of consolidating new information. He spent the rest of his life under constant care because he could no longer take care of himself. Although he lived a hard life, his contribution to memory research supported the separation of functions between memory and intelligence and between long- and short-term memory (Baddeley et al., 2020).
Long Term Memory and its Influence on Schema and Race
There have been a few different theories relating to memory and its functions throughout the decades; the most current approach is the Working Memory Model. Working memory is the conscious awareness of your present moment experiences (Doolittle, 2013). Working memory allows us to store some of our immediate experiences and some of the knowledge we gain from them (Doolittle, 2013). It also allows us to access our LTM, bring some of it into our present moment, and incorporate it into our current goal (Doolittle, 2013). The Working Memory Model processes these workings through four different components of our working memory: the central executive, episodic buffer, phonological loop, and the visuospatial sketchpad (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020). There is no exact location where this occurs, but rather, it interconnects together to form these components of memory. (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020). Brain scans have indicated that specific brain regions seem to play a more prominent role in particular types of memory, such as memories involving imagery or sound (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020).
The frontal and parietal lobes control most of the central executive component of our working memory, which regulates task switching, memory span capacity, and inhibition (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020). The visuospatial sketchpad processes visual memories, which allows us to recall images we have seen before and manipulate the concepts we have in our brain (Baddeley et al., 2020). Our memories involving imagery emphasize the frontal, occipital, and temporal lobes (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020). Image-based memories typically give us a feeling of reliving, known as autonoetic consciousness; they form the episodic network (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020). The phonological loop processes memories involving language, sounds, and literacy, such as songs or words. (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020). The phonological loop is a primary function of the frontal and temporal lobe and derives a feeling of knowing, which is known as noetic consciousness (Baddeley et al., 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020).
Understanding episodic memories will be beneficial to comprehend the episodic buffer in the Working Memory Model. Recalling our past experiences can evoke a myriad of sensations and emotions, which carry with them the knowledge of place and time (Baddeley et al., 2020). This multimodal representation of our episodic memories is known as binding (Baddeley et al., 2020).
Knowing where you were in a memory, the time it happened, and the events’ sequential order are due to special brain cells utilized to form that memory (Baddeley et al., 2020). Within the hippocampus, some neurons respond in particular ways in reaction to our environment and location, known as place cells. These provide us with a sense of spatial recognition when recalling memories (Baddeley et al., 2020). Time cells are neurons within the hippocampus that code for specific moments in time in a temporal sequence not connected to any external stimuli (Baddeley et al., 2020). Many believe that time cells represent time in our episodic memories (Baddeley et al., 2020). The sensations and emotions connected to the memories are inputs from the amygdala and other cortical regions (Baddeley et al., 2020).
The episodic buffer uses information from the episodic memories to help us make sense of the stimuli we receive. It allows us to remember the knowledge we gain from it by pulling together separate information streams from the various sensations and binding them together to create objects and scenes (Baddeley et al., 2020). The episodic buffer also retrieves memories from LTM and connects them to the incoming stimuli from the other pieces of the Working Memory Model (Baddeley et al., 2020).
Our episodic memories become pieces of knowledge that form some semantic memory (Baddeley et al., 2020). Semantic memory is the other branch of long-term memory, and its primary purpose is to store facts and our understanding of the world (Baddeley et al., 2020). Tulving describes semantic memory as noetic awareness or the feeling of knowing (Baddeley et al., 2020). It refers to things like remembering historical moments such as Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous, I Have a Dream speech or the year the United States voted in its first Black president. These are memories without a personal connection to them, and they are purely facts stored in the brain (Baddeley et al., 2020). Semantic memories can also form when our experiences of life turn into how we view the world (Baddeley et al., 2020). For example, we have seen a bathroom enough times to know what will be in a bathroom. Our episodic, living experiences have influenced our schemas on how a bathroom should look. We would not expect a bed to be in a bathroom because it is not in that schema. A schema is a broad set of neural networks combined to give a general idea of a concept (Baddeley et al., 2020). They can be very expansive or specific, depending on the thought. The more frequent an image is in the world, the more concrete it is in the schema (Baddeley, 2020). Schemas are beneficial when trying to understand the world around you but can create overgeneralizations and bias simultaneously.
By conceptualizing the incoming information received by our sensory receptors, schemas allow us to preserve valuable cognitive energy by keeping us from always having to relearn new concepts (Baddeley et al., 2020). However, the efficiency of schemas can be problematic, discussed later on.
When we think back on our lives, we typically have several essential memories we retrieve to define who we are (Wang & Ross, 2007). When we tell these stories to explain who we are, we are utilizing our personal narrative (Wang & Ross, 2007). The remembering self creates our story, but the experiencing self tells it. (Kahneman, 2010). Our experiencing self is the part of us that others interact with, such as when we respond to a question our friend asked us (Kahneman, 2010). Our responses come from our remembering self, bringing this to our attention (Kahneman, 2010). The remembering self uses our memories to create a narrative that makes sense of all the information we have received in the past and continues to take in from our environments (Kahneman, 2010; Wang & Ross, 2007). Additionally, Our recollection of past experiences provides contexts to our present moment, which helps us achieve our current goals (Conway & Loveday, 2015). It also allows us to create social connections by relating to others through shared experiences (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2020).
Culture is a vital component of our environment and plays a role in behavioral and emotional regulation, socialization, and language (Ross & Wang, 2010). Culture provides a context in how we perceive our physical environment by indicating what we should pay attention to (Ross & Wang, 2010). It also emphasizes how we should feel and think about ourselves and others (Ross & Wang, 2010). These emphases typically come from our primary caregivers, observed in the differences between Eastern cultures and Western cultures (Ross & Wang, 2010). Parents within Eastern cultures tend to tell their children what they should think and how they should feel, whereas, in Western cultures, parents ask their children what they think and what they feel (Ross & Wang, 2010). Additionally, in Western cultures, the emphasis of the self within the world is that of uniqueness and personal attributes, and a sense of autonomy is highly valued (Ross & Wang, 2010). On the contrary, Eastern Asian cultures have a nearly opposite view of the self, whereas the self is related to the interconnectedness with others (Ross & Wang, 2010).
Due to so many aspects controlling the way our brain creates our sense of self, researchers have learned that our sense of self is a collection of memories (Conway & Loveday, 2015; Baggini, 2011). Our memories come from experiences, which are narrated by external factors such as culture (Conway & Loveday, 2015; Baggini, 2011). Our memories arise from external and internal cues, which connect our memories (Conway & Loveday, 2015). A single episodic memory can contain a great deal of information. Each aspect of that information relates to other information you know. That relationship is what creates a cue (Conway & Loveday, 2015). To give an example, let’s say you have a memory of buying your first statistics textbook, and that memory cues your brain to recall the feeling of relief you got when you passed your first statistics exam. That memory then cues you to remember the relief you felt when your COVID-19 test came back negative. This complex and interconnected system of memories is known as the Self-Memory System (Conway & Loveday, 2015).
Knowing the complexity of the self-memory system, it shouldn’t be a surprise that our memories have a window of accessibility of our memories of the recent past and near future (Conway & Loveday, 2015). This window of accessibility is known as the Remembering Imagining System (RIS) (Conway & Loveday, 2015). Our recent episodic memories are easily accessible, and near-future (imagined) events are also highly accessible (Conway & Loveday, 2015). Both aspects of memory, real or imagined, become less accessible the further they get from our current moment, within the timeframe of five days in the past and five days into the future (Conway & Loveday, 2015). Memory accuracy falls within a 2-dimensional space that consists of correspondence on one dimension and coherence on the other (Conway & Loveday, 2015). The dimensions range from low to high, and together they make four quadrants. These include high correspondence-high coherence (usually accurate memories), high correspondence-low coherence (memories of trauma), low correspondence-high coherence (typical memories), and low correspondence-low coherence (delusional and confabulated memories) (Conway & Loveday, 2015). “In general, memories are depictions of the past constructed in the RIS from the complex underlying knowledge base. They fall somewhere in the correspondence-coherence space with all memories having aspects of both” (Conway & Loveday, 2015, p. 579).
We Are More Than What We Think We Are
We all have unique lived experiences that our brains have encoded into our long-term memory system that we use to our benefit in several different ways. Our recollection of past experiences provides contexts to our present moment, which helps us achieve our current goals (Conway & Loveday, 2015). It also allows us to create social connections by relating to others through shared experiences (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2020). Memories that connect to a specific time and place that have personal significance are known as autobiographical memories (Baddeley et al., 2020). Humans seem to be the only animal with autobiographical memories due to their primary reliance on language to be created (Keil, 2014).
Our brains utilize language to categorize the different types of stimuli we receive, which allows us to formulate memories of information that we can use to help us in the present and future (Baddeley et al., 2020; Keil, 2014). Our brains make connections between new and prior knowledge that are semantically related to form schemas (Baddeley et al., 2020). By conceptualizing the incoming information received by our sensory receptors, schemas allow us to preserve valuable cognitive energy by keeping us from always having to relearn new concepts (Baddeley et al., 2020).
Language is also essential for encoding and recalling semantic and episodic memories (Baddeley et al., 2020). Our semantic memories are facts we have about the world, and they give us a sense of knowing, which is known as noetic awareness (Baddeley et al., 2020). On the other hand, our episodic memories provide us with information about experiences we had and give us a sense of reliving, known as autonoetic awareness (Baddeley et al., 2020). However, our autobiographical memories are influenced by more than just semantic and episodic memories; environmental factors also play a part in the types of autobiographical memories we encode and recall (Conway & Loveday, 2015; Fivush & Nelson, 2004).
Humans cannot remember it all. We can come up with new teaching habits and little ways to remember things like sticky notes and lists and notebooks to keep all the things we need to remember because we cannot retrieve them ourselves. We do not need a lot of the information we take in because it does not influence our survival. Sometimes we lose memories we wish we had kept in our minds. There are about seven different memory difficulties we have (Schacter, 1999). It is crucial to recognize these because they are what make our memory so impressive and so complicated. These are transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence (Schacter, 1999). Schacter writes more in detail about them in his article, but some will be covered here as part of this as well. Misattribution, suggestibility, and bias are the most important when in consideration of race.
Misattribution has many pieces of its definition, such as an incorrect source, forgetting of information given to you, or a false recollection of things that did not happen (Schacter, 1999). Misattribution becomes problematic when tied to race. For example, hearing something about a crime and thinking there was mention of a person of color when there was not is a chain of thought that both reflects and perpetuates prejudicial attitudes prevalent in our society. Misattributing information on people of color can be dangerous to our beliefs on human equality. Why would we want equality for them if they cause the problems in the first place? This kind of thinking is the issue that must be changed. Likewise, it is crucial to ensure that facts and sources are behind the information spread. Sometimes people may think they got their evidence from a knowledgeable source when, in reality, they heard it in a conversation with a friend. When listening to a story from someone, it is essential to find evidence with sources and proof that those things happened. Without it, you may be spreading misinformation based on misattribution, and when tied with race, it can be detrimental. Another part of misattribution is, as mentioned earlier, a false recollection. Along with that example, someone might see a crime occur and believe that people of color are more likely to be arrested for crimes, so they might convince themselves it was a person of color when they never even saw the person. Suggestibility goes hand in hand with misattribution.
Schacter (1999) defines suggestibility as being misled into recalling a memory that never occurred. Unfortunately, often it is therapists who mislead patients to believe a situation transpired when it did not. Suggestibility is dangerous because it can plant false memories into the heads of people, potentially creating vivid images of something inaccurate or untrue entirely. When people have artificial memories about family members, it puts an unrepairable divide in the family. Police will sometimes lead witnesses to suggest the perpetrator was a person of color, even if they never saw their skin tone. This idea is similar to misattribution, but it is important to note that the difference is police luring the witness rather than the witness misleading their thoughts. If the officers already have someone in mind that they believe did it, and they need confirmation, they might try to lead the witness in the direction they want them to go.
Bias exaggerates feelings and attitudes about past recollections and their influence on the present-day (Schacter, 1999). Schacter (1999) describes an experiment done about race and bias, where they asked participants about whether a name was of a criminal they had heard about in the news. They were either European American or African American names, and although none of the people were offenders, the participants thought that more of the African American names were criminals. There are different types of bias, such as consistency and retroactive; however, retroactive bias refers to the social cognition aspect and is what describes the example above (Schacter, 1999). Culture plays a large role in prejudice today. Prejudice happens when negative bias and stereotypes mold together into a hurtful outlook on a group of people, which can lead to discrimination. Prejudice forming into discrimination has caused many serious actions.
Each sin of omission has harmful effects if not dealt with and prevented when connected to race. Our society has yet to bounce back from how racist we were in the past. We are still trying to pick up the pieces from our faults. Despite the multitude of people who have decided that racism is no longer real, there is proof in every way that people of color do not have equal opportunity and that we all still struggle with our schemas on race. The first step is becoming aware of racism and working towards ways to be better. With deliberate energy, we can reshape schemas to undo stereotypes and prejudices, which will lead to the prevention of racially stereotyped omissions. Each of the sins weaves together to create these stereotypes, so it can be challenging to work on only one concept at a time.
Racism is a topic people are working towards educating themselves about nowadays. It has been a systemic issue in our culture since the birth of America. Many people in our country believe racism is dead and has been for a long time, yet, it is still prevalent today. It shows in our schools, prisons, and our thoughts. Changing our biases about race is a challenging process, but with education and encoding, we can influence our minds. We have to alter the entire schema of race and prejudice in the brain to shift the constructs we built so long ago. Bringing up the thoughts and questioning what makes us think them (metacognition), and then reconsidering why we believe those things will help to reconstruct our opinions. Listening to how people of color feel and their stories is beneficial to allow understanding from outside of the WEIRD (Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic) perspective. Without a shift in how we view race as a whole, we will never grow as a country.
Even though culture plays an essential role in how we think and live, we are not bound to it (Wang & Ross, 2007; Kleinknecht, 2020). Culture does not make people; people make culture (Kleinknecht, 2020). In the West, we have a culture that is none inclusive of others and has been built upon racism and maintained through systems put in place that further the inequality in nearly all facets of life (Kendi, 2020). Although there may be many other places with racial injustice, the West, or the United States, is a place where we have the ability to challenge the norms. The fact that race influences opportunities means some children and adults cannot improve their environment because of the systems and policies in place, which is what needs change.
To create an inclusive and equitable culture, we must first educate ourselves (Kendi, 2020). The information we gain will be added to our schemas and change how we view other cultures and races; it will also change how we view our own (Kendi, 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020). We will learn to recognize the aspects of our culture that perpetuate systemic racism, and as more come to know of these issues, we as a collective can create a positive change!
There are plenty of ways to work toward changing a schema to be less racist, but it takes deliberate practice. It is crucial first to learn how memories form and understand how they can be altered or changed. Peter Doolittle (2013) provides us with various ways in which we can improve our working memory. The first step is to think about what we want to work on or change and focus on those aspects repeatedly as we go about our lives (Doolittle, 2013). When we encounter circumstances related to what we want to change, we need to ask questions about the situations, such as, do I agree with it? What is missing? How can I apply it to my life? The repetition will strengthen neural pathways related to what you repeatedly practice, or Hebb’s Rule (Doolittle, 2013; Baddeley et al., 2020). Ways to practice repetition include writing about it and talking about it with others (Doolittle, 2013). We also need to think about it elaborately, which allows our mind to make multiple associations, and in turn, strengthens the connections to the changes you want to make (Doolittle, 2013; Baddeley et al., 2020; Kleinknecht, 2020).
Below are some additional methods you can do and practice to help enhance your antiracist skills.
- Introduce books and movies that include stories about people of color to your children.
- Have discussions with your children about race.
- Have discussions with your friends, family, and others about race.
- Question the stereotypes you come across.
- Talk to people of color and ask them to share their stories and LISTEN. Understand that some people may not be willing to share, and that is OKAY.
- Get involved with or make connections with diverse communities.
- Research the connections between race and privilege.
- Learn about policies in place that discriminate against marginalized communities.
Expanding on each of these will be more beneficial for a complete understanding of each point. For example, teaching your children about race will open them up to seeing the racial inequalities at a young age and will help them to have a different racial schema. Hopefully, this will prevent them from falling into the societal trap of believing that racism no longer exists. This will also prevent them from forming schemas with a negative outlook on race. Opening up conversations with family and friends will help the beginnings of changing schemas for all. It may be strenuous to have such controversial discussions, but without them, nothing will change. Even if nothing they believe is changed, at least their neuron pathways are forming with an alternative view, even if they do not want a new mindset. Eventually, anytime race is part of a conversation, their brain will connect it to talking about how prevalent and unnecessary it is today.
Even then, discussions can only do so much. Actively putting yourself out there to listen and participate will make more expansive changes altogether. Hearing stories of situations you have never experienced before will open up your neural pathways to understand the connection between their memories and race in a way we as WEIRD people cannot comprehend on our own. Connecting with diverse communities will do a similar thing. Engaging in distinct cultural experiences will help to broaden your understanding and awareness of their lifestyles. Forming your episodic and autobiographical memories with new cultural outlooks will broaden your overall appreciation for interactions between all populations.
Understanding the formation of memories and the intricacies of neural pathways, along with an awareness of how memory can be dangerous (e.g., stereotypical schemas and the sins of memory), is vital to help to work on altering racist views. Everyone has to start somewhere, and reading a paper on memory and race might be the first step for some.
About the Authors
My name is Jasmin Shellenbarger, and I am a Psychology major. My biggest takeaway is understanding how the sins of omission and its connection to culture influence people’s thoughts and ideas about race. It is crazy that we could be reconsolidating racist views without even realizing it! This paper was quite a struggle, but I learned a lot from it. Connecting things acquired from class to real-life can be a challenge, yet, the reward was massive. I feel so much more educated on racism and its formation in the brain from this writing experience. I get to educate my family on how these processes occur now. I would never have been able to without this paper.
“My biggest takeaway was learning how racist views and beliefs get formed. Additionally, I have gained more confidence in having conversations about race and inequality.” -Chris W.
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