brains are cool

Those of you who have the misfortune of knowing me and/or being harassed by me as a researcher will probably know I’ve been poking my nose into techies childhoods and teenage years to try and find out if there are particular patterns of leisure which “make” someone into an adult techie.  One of the things I was recently asked to think about in relation to using biographical research methods is the human memory. How do memories work? How has memory been theorized? Being an interdisciplinary type, I looked at both sociology and psychology. Sociology didn’t yield a great deal that was useful. In sociology we get a number of foci (from Jedlowski, 2001):

  • “The social aspects of individual memory”
  • “Collective memories”
  • “Cultural attitudes towards memory”

I’m not sure if “collective memories” helps here, given that a lot of my participants don’t know eachother – they’re not part of one homogenous social group. “Cultural attitudes towards memory” is about how we actually conceptualize memory, but it doesn’t necessarily help me to understand the memories and autobiographical narration in individual accounts. Overall, while this literature has some interesting points, I found it very difficult to operationalize in practice during data analysis.

Anyway, even though my focus has never been on psychology, I found the psychology of autobiographical memory rather more useful. In an article by Conway and Pleydell-Pearce, the authors present a specific model – the Self-Memory System or SMS – in which stored memories are closely related to the conception of the self. To use a phrase from layman’s terms, this is a version of what we normally call “selective memory”, but – in this model – selective memory is something we all have, something which occurs unconsciously, and something which relates to our present-moment definition of self. One observation is that learning experiences are some of most salient memories recounted when someone tells you of a time period:

“Robinson (1992) studied what he called “mini-histories” for activities such as learning to drive a car and first romantic relationship. Initial findings suggested that these were organized around individual memories representing events featuring goal-attainment knowledge (both positive and negative) that appeared to convey significant information for the self (e.g., about how easily a skill was acquired and about success and failure in intimate interpersonal relations). Interestingly, both types of minihistory featured highly vivid memories for critical moments of goal attainment. Virtually all of Robinson’s (1992) participants had vivid memories for the first time they drove a car alone and for a first kiss. Indeed, Robinson proposed that these first-time memories were a particularly important category of general event and served to determine the nature of the self.”  (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce, 2000, 262)

Pride at success, and shame at failure are powerful emotions related to the learning process located around very specific events. From a crude, evolutionary perspective this makes perfect sense. You have a biological incentive to remember the things you did to acquire the sweetest fruit ever, and equally, it’s a good idea to remember which berries made you feel ill (and consequentially made you feel stupid). This understanding of autobiographical memory is really relevant to what I’m studying, seeing as my focus is on informal learning. In a way, it kind of bypasses the criticism of selective memory (but your participants might be lying!) by showing how selective memory is deeply related to the learning process.

broken cpu
whatever you did to this broken thing – don’t do it again!

But there’s more. Elsewhere in the same psych journal, Conway and Pleydell-Pearce list a number of studies which illustrate how the memory is related to the working self – the self which consists of a structure of goals and attempts to work upon the world. In this set of studies, the working self is seen to determine what events are recalled or (unconsciously) omitted during the narration of personal narratives. For example, Woike et al (1999) and Markus (1977) both found that those with strong leanings towards independence or dependence on others showed strong leanings towards recall of memories which relate strongly to that dimension. Woike et al found that those with individualistic/agentic personality types were more likely to recall memories and emotions related to agency issues (such as feeling masterful or being humiliated – see above examples) while more communally oriented types “recalled emotions and memories featuring others… in acts of love and friendship” (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce, p267). McAdams (1982) similarly identifies “biases in memory availability by dominant motive type” suggesting that “the goal structure of the working self makes highly available those aspects of the knowledge base that relate most directly to current goals.” (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce, 267). So memory is sort of a tool – we recall memories which strengthen our current sense of who we are and which help us to achieve our current goals.

Thinking about personality sends my brain off in all kinds of directions. Obviously it’s massively outside of my own skillset, and the focus of my own study, but it would be interesting to see what sort of personalities are associated with tech-work (one participant said several times that he associates the profession with “borderline autism”) and whether ICT’s “gender issue” is really one specifically about gender, or whether notions of gender identity are just generative of types of personalities which boys and girls are differentially encouraged to adapt early on. If boys’ play was oriented around interpersonal relationships and girls’ play around agentic individualism, would computing be girly?

(PS someone plz finish devving The Matrix so I can accurately model and test these ideas instead of just speculating or doing unethical experiments with islands of feral children?)




Conway, M. A. and Pleydell-Pearce, C. W. (2000) ‘The Construction of Autobiographical Memories in the Self-Memory System’ in Psychological Review. Vol. 107. No. 2. 261-288

Jedlowski, P. (2001) ‘Memory and Sociology: Themes and Issues’ in Time Society. Volume 10. Number 1. 29-44.

Markus, H. (1977). Self-schemata and processing information about the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 63-78.

McAdams, D. P. (1982). Experiences of intimacy and power: Relationships between social motives and autobiographical memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 292-302.

Robinson, J. A. (1992). First experience memories: Contexts and function in personal histories. In M. A. Conway, D. C. Rubin, H. Spinnler, & W. A. Wagenaar (Eds.), Theoretical perspectives on autobiographical memory (pp. 223-239). Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.

Woike, B., Gershkovich, I., Piorkowski, R., & Polo, M. (1999). The role ofmotives in the content and structure of autobiographical memory. Journalof Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 600-612.