“Consolidation and Reconsolidation of Cultural Memory"
The Consolidation and Reconsolidation of Remote Cultural Memory
Weizmann Institute of Science and New York University
From the vantage point of the Science of Memory, human cultures could be considered as 'biocultural supraorganisms' that store distributed experience-dependent, behaviorally-relevant representations over hundreds and thousands of years. Similarly to other memory systems, these supraorganisms encode, store and express memory items as the concerted output of multiple sub-components; but whereas in the individual brain these sub-components are brain cells and circuits that can maintain information up to a life-time, here the engram is encoded in large distributed assemblies composed of individual brains, intra- and inter-generational interacting brains, and multiple types of artefacts that occasionally interact with brains. Considering cultural memory in such a way promotes mechanistic analysis of the processes and mechanisms that consolidate, maintain, and reconsolidate shared memories of human populations over very long periods of time. Pertinent data can be extracted from analyses of 'unintentional experiments' occurring in the course of history, complemented by recall experiments in extant populations. I will illustrate the approach by referring to the memory of the Jewish culture, that can be traced back ca. 3300 yr (i.e. ca. 130 generations) ago. Its earliest identified core element seems to have amalgamated fact with fiction in its first ca. 1000 yrs before being consolidated into a text of only 63 Hebrew words ca. 2300 yrs ago. Its high-fidelity persistence relied on evolving procedural reactivations. In recent generations reactivation of this memory and its updating play a role in splitting Jewish cultural memory into sub-narratives that differ, inter alia, in geographical distribution and cultural signature. Interestingly, the analysis may also suggest potential mechanisms of remote memory in 'lower levels' of human memory, i.e. individual brains.