Our Memories Change Based On Context & Brain Images Can Prove It

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Memories are influenced by Community

Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy

Memories play a pivotal role in the way we experience our lives, and new research has revealed those memories may be more impressionable than we once thought.

We know memories can influence future behavior, and further, false memories are a well-studied and well-known phenomenon. So, where does the context in which memories are formed come into play?

According to a new study, it may have everything to do with who we spend our time with. Namely, researchers have identified a link within the brain between "collective memories" and personal memories

Studying collective influence.

Collective memory is defined in the study as accounts, narratives, images, and symbols that come together to form a community's identity. The father of collective memory, Maurice Halbwachs proposed in the early 1900s that personal memories are formed in relation to a group's memories, which has a unifying effect on the group as a whole.

And now, for the first time, that theory has been confirmed through brain imaging that showed the link between collective and personal memory.

The research was a collaboration between researchers Pierre Gagnepain and Francis Eustache at the Université de Caen-Normandie and historian Denis Peschanski. To study the effects of collective memory, they used an algorithm to analyze World War II media coverage, which helped them understand the shared attitudes toward the war.

"Our algorithm automatically identified the central themes and the words repeatedly associated with them," Gagnepain explains, "thereby revealing our collective representations of this crucial period in our history."

Then, the researchers got 24 volunteers to visit a museum, where they looked at captioned pictures from World War II.

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Context matters in memories.

The captions served as a way to mark the association between the photos and the central themes surrounding World War II. Going off of those central themes, researchers figured out which photos would be "close" within the collective memory depending on how many words in the captions related to the themes they found.

Then, to figure out if that "closeness" existed within personal memory as well as the collective, the team took to brain imaging.

The volunteers, while in MRI machines, were asked to think about the museum pictures they'd seen. The researchers observed, when two photos were considered collectively "close," they caused similar brain activity in the individual as well.

All that to say, this study proved our individual memories are highly influenced by the context in which they're created. So much so, that the study authors assert memory cannot be fully understood if we don't take collective memory into account.

"Our data demonstrate that collective memory, which exists beyond the individual level, organizes and shapes personal memory," Gagnepain says. "It constitutes a shared mental model making it possible to link the memories of individuals across time and space."

These findings remind us of our commonality, and the profound effect community can have on an individual. So the next time you're thinking about how you can improve your memory, or whether your memories are even accurate, give some thought to the "general consensus," so to speak. It may have had more influence on your memories than you realized.

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