The premise with which we begin is that memory occurs in the space between individuals and the past to which they belong. We know it has a double basis: neural and social. What neuroscientists are beginning to realize is that human memory didn’t evolve only so we could remember, but also to allow us to imagine what might be. To create imagined future events, it is postulated that individuals must be able to recall previously experienced ones, extract details, and put them together to simulate what could happen at a later subjective time.
The purpose of this symposium is in turn twofold. It is to explore how the discoveries being made about the relationship of episodic memory (memory of particular past events a person has directly experienced) to foresight and ingenuity can suggest ways to solve problems and offer comfort to individuals during periods of stress and anxiety. It is also to consider whether such important new findings might have an impact on what we are learning about how societies, forged in no small part by types of communal memory termed communicative memory (shared yet changing) and the more stable cultural memory, respond both to ongoing challenges and catastrophic change. Cultural memories, which are maintained through oral stories, texts, song, pictorial images, monuments, rites, and festivals, preserve the store of knowledge from which a group derives an awareness of its unity and peculiarity. But these memories work through reconstruction, that is, by relating what is known of the past to actual and contemporary situations. It has also been posited that what has been termed canonical memory, drawn from and connecting particular caches of cultural memories, can be a creative and dynamic force both in forging good character and, more generally, opening the future to new possibilities.
The assumptions driving our conversation are that what neuroscience is telling us about how memory works at the molecular and cellular levels together with what psychologists are learning about the development of individual memory, especially the internal processing of experience and how external circumstances affect it, could have clinical applicability in treating stress disorders and aid those trying to assist people in moral quandaries or spiritual distress. The insights thus derived also might have an application on a larger scale—helping us to understand and even diffuse religious conflict and cultural clashes in a way that permits creative forward movement. The wisdom of scholars who study memory from a humanistic perspective must surely guide us in exploring these broader issues. Among the specific big questions to be pondered are:
What is the role of memory in shaping human well-being?
What exactly is the relationship between individual memory and memory that an individual shares with his/her contemporaries?
Can what we are learning about the basis and development of these two forms of memory help resolve personal and group tensions through the simulation of possible futures?
Can imagination conditioned by memory foster personal growth and contribute to new forms of social relations and transcultural interactions?
Can it transform our understanding of others as well as ourselves?
Twelve scholars and scientists from five countries—Australia, Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States—come together to probe for answers in a great crossroads city, where the painful memory of 9/11 is preserved and honored in a landscaped plaza on the site of the former World Trade Center.