top of page

What We Remember is What We Are

“No One should delude themselves into thinking we all use it the same way. But just as we use words like love and hate without ever knowing their full or shared significance, so we are bound to go on using the term ‘memory’ the historical signature of several generations, including our own”

(Winter, 2006)

In life, almost all activities in some way deal with memory (Schacter2001). It is only through the capacity of memory that we can relate to different events, experiences, conditions, people and objects. It is needed in developing social relationships, mastering cognitive capabilities and solving various problems.

This is incredibly important to consider in the context of trying to understand the crucial role memory has in post-conflict communities which are often fatigued, fraught, emotionally vulnerable and disorientated.

Memory is an impressive mental system that receives a huge amount of information, retains it and makes it available to us when required. Memory is so significant to us, that without it, we would struggle to develop an identity, a sense of belonging, and wouldn’t have the ability to move on from the first things experienced, which would render us fundamentally disoriented and vulnerable.

McDowell suggests that, “[w]hat we remember is what we are” (McDowell, Barniff 2016). To a certain extent this is generally understood, albeit taken for granted and given little consideration. Less understood, is the implications in peacebuilding processes of memory and its fallible and fragile nature. If ‘what we remember is what we are’, then how does that apply to the people that make up a post-conflict community which have their memories of violence stirred by a local building that features in a lot of those memories?

Freud stated that “the weak spot in the security of our mental life is the untrustworthiness of our memory” (Freud). What makes it disloyal is that, contrary to Aristotle’s description of memory as an “imprint or drawing in us of things felt,” which gives the impression that memory is like a modern recording device that records image, speech, music or video clips that plays back to us on demand, our memory system is a dynamic system. It remembers not only vocal and visual data but, ‘tactile impressions, feelings of pain and joy, motor skills, events and activities. In the main our memory will provide reliable memories and serve us very well. However, it is important to consider that memory, when processing the information received, may assimilate, add, change, forget, or restructure the information.

Memory is not passive like a PC or video camera, which reproduces the information in its original context, but reflective and susceptible to a range of influences within and exterior to, the brain. Therefore, memory accessed from long-term storage into short-term memory isn’t as robust as one might believe. It is malleable; new events or information can be added, it can change our perceptions and what we think we remember about past events, resulting in subtle errors and misrepresentations (Schacter 2001,1).

This is incredibly important to consider in the context of trying to understand the crucial role memory has in post-conflict communities which are often fatigued, fraught, emotionally vulnerable and disorientated. To emphasize the point and to reiterate the fragility of memory, especially when considered within a traumatic context such as war, it is important to acknowledge, what Schacter describes as the seven sins of memory.

The first three, are ‘transience, absent-mindedness and blocking’ which are familiar to us all, and to do with omission and the failure to recall the desired information (Schacter, 2002). The other four are related to cognition. In other words, where a memory is recalled, but is unwanted or incorrect. Schacter refers to these memories as, misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence. Misattributed memory is when we attach the memory to the wrong source. Suggested memory is a memory that has been created as a result of leading questions, comments or suggestions when a person is attempting to recall a past experience. An interesting ‘memory sin’ to be aware of when working in communities which have experienced trauma such as civil war is a memory with bias, which Schacter describes as, “a memory that reflects the powerful influences of our current knowledge and beliefs on how we remember our past”. He goes on to explain that, “We often edit of rewrite our previous experiences – unknowingly and unconsciously – in light of what we now know or believe. The result can be a skewed rendering of a specific incident, or of an extended period in our lives, which says more about how we feel now than about what happened then” (Schacter 2001,10). An interesting and pertinent aspect to this memory is the existence of a ‘stereotypical bias’ where memories are influenced by one’s involvement with other ethnic groups which leads to the creation of stereotypes that amplify their general characteristics and can manifest inaccurate and unwanted judgments about individuals. Finally, there is the seventh sin of ‘persistence’, a memory which in a post conflict context, can be the most debilitating of all seven sins. This memory involves the repeated recollection of traumatic experiences or events, in other words, remembering what we wish we could forget, if only our brain would let us. This type of memory can be as Schacter warns, “disabling and even life-threatening”.

These seven types of memory imperfections remind us that, although memory is an integral, relatively trusted aspect of who we are and how we perceive the environment in which we exist, it is important to monitor the established methods of representation, management and control of memory. And in the context of this research, modes of remembrance and memory curation in which we use memories to narrate history and represent post-war peacebuilding and reconciliation.

“Sometimes we forget the past and at other times we distort it; some disturbing memories haunt us for years. Yet we also rely on memory to perform an astonishing variety of tasks in our everyday lives” (Mifflin, 2001)


bottom of page