Week 34: Pascal Boyer (2009) What Are Memories For? Functions of Recall in Cognition and Culture

In the previous weeks’ discussions the role of memory constantly lurked in the background. As such, for this session we turned to the first chapter of Pascal Boyer and James Wertsch‘s edited collection Memory in Mind and Culture, which looks at human memory. Boyer’s essay is particularly interesting because it outlines the evidence and the history of the research that indicates that the memory system can be chunked into several major types, but then goes on to place them in an evolutionary context. The quandary here is that whilst there seem to be evolutionary contexts and conditions that would drive the selection of procedural and semantic memory, it is not clear what episodic memory adds (functionally speaking) that the other two do not already cover. Boyer then nicely considers a range of speculations related to this matter.

I will firstly discuss the taxonomy of memory before then turning to this evolutionary conundrum and Boyer’s discussion. But I must also note that this week’s session was nicely led by McArthur Mingon (from whom I have largely taken the diagram below – obviously, all the mistakes are mine and mine alone).


The memory taxonomy

Human memory can be divided into two major categories: declarative and non-declarative (see diagram below). This is sometimes understood as the distinction between knowing that and knowing how – viz. that the former is explicit and conscious whereas the latter is unconscious and implicit. Within these categories we can divide declarative into semantic and episodic memory. The former regards knowledge of certain facts about the world (e.g. Donald Trump is still somehow president of the USA), whereas the latter is the phenomenologically rich recall of discrete moments of one’s life (e.g. what one had for breakfast and what it tasted like).

Non-declarative memory refers to reflexes and also to procedural memory: skills (e.g. riding a bike) and habits (e.g. brushing your teeth with your left hand). The combination of procedural, semantic, and episodic memory comes together to form autobiographical memory (sometimes referred to as the narrative self).

Beyond the remit of the paper we also discussed a range of other kinds of memory – the core point here was the difference in duration. Human memory ranges from the here-and-now (working memory), up to short-term and long-term memory (also see Bietti & Sutton 2015 for a nice discussion of these differing temporal scales). But we also considered the inter-generational transmission of information, which can be considered a form of distributed memory. The notion of inter-generational collaborative cognition was particularly intriguing and as such we turned to Regina Fabry’s recent work on this topic in the subsequent week 35. For more on a range of these topics see the excellent overview over at the Stanford Encyclopaedia Entry on Memory.

memory taxonomy


The evolutionary conundrum in regards to episodic memory

Briefly put: what are the evolutionary reasons for episodic memory? It seems like we can get by quite well with just semantic and procedural memory. So, why do we have such rich phenomenological episodic recall? Could it be something to do with hyper-cooperativeness? (Based on Kim Sterelny’s (2003) claim that hypercooperativity is a hallmark feature of our species). From Boyer’s article and our group discussion we discerned the following possible adaptive reasons for episodic memory:

  • Foresight and prospective mental time-travel
  • For handling social complexity
  • Linked to imagination of pro-social behaviour (narratives?)
  • For tackling dangerous situations
  • Powerful affective connection to family and home: the collective narrative as powerfully emotional

But these speculations raise the further question of why specific memories of events are necessary for groups. Again, a possible reason here could be linked to affect – Thagard (2006) has argued that group cognition is inherently emotional. Perhaps, vivid episodic recall is essential for hyper-cooperative behaviour? (This view would be supported by John Sutton’s forthcoming work on distributed cognition which nicely combines both emotion and memory)

Although this is highly speculative, it is interesting to note that examinations of cross-cultural differences could be informative here. For instance, differing parenting styles in regards to communication in the parent-child dyad can have significant impacts on the cognitive abilities of children (e.g. see van Bergen et al 2009). Parents who engage in elaborative collaborative reminiscing styles with their children with rich emotional details, thus providing more scaffolding, leads to better (more robust and articulate) and earlier memories. And is also associated with better social cognition: identifying emotions in others and better emotion understanding (Van Bergen et al 2009). Penny Van Bergen and colleagues’ work compared parents within a WEIRD society (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic) – with a control group versus one that had received training on more elaborative reminiscing styles. But there is also cross-cultural evidence supporting this view. An ethnographic study by Reese and Neha (2015) found that the complex and elaborate reminiscing styles between Maori mothers and their children leads to improved and earlier memory formation.

Variability across different cultures implies that episodic memory is not a fully modular system (because development with differing cultural practices penetrate into altering the processing of this system – albeit, it could potentially be a partially modular system and only have some of the features identified by Fodor and others), but perhaps semantic and procedural memory are modular? Contrary to this, Greg Downey (2012) would perhaps argue that procedural memory is highly encultured on the basis of cross cultural evidence: e.g. learning to do a handstand in the traditions of Capoeira or gymnastics has a radical impact on the sensory vestibular system and how the body unconsciously enacts this process. This work, as well as other work on cultural practices, suggests that human memory is highly enculturated and socially impacted.






Bietti, L. M. & Sutton, J. (2015) Interacting to remember at multiple timescales: Coordination, collaboration, cooperation and culture in joint remembering. Interaction Studies 16 (3), 419-450.

Boyer, P. (2009) What Are Memories For? Functions of Recall
in Cognition and Culture. (pp. 3-28) in Pascal Boyer & James Wertsch (eds.), Memory in Mind and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Downey, G. (2012) Balancing between Cultures: Equilibrium in Capoeira. (pp. 169–194) in D. H. Lende & G. Downey (Eds.) The Encultured Brain: An introduction to Neuroanthropology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Reese, E. & Neha, T. (2015) Let’s kōrero (talk): The practice and functions of reminiscing among mothers and children in Māori familiesMemory 23 (1), 99-110.

Sterelny, K. (2003) Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Sutton, J. (forthcoming) Shared remembering and distributed affectivity. In Kourken Michaelian, Dorothea Debus, and Denis Perrin (eds), New Directions in the Philosophy of Memory. London: Routledge.

Thagard, P. (2006) Hot Thought: Mechanisms and Applications of Emotional Cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Van Bergen, P., Salmon, K., Dadds, M. R., & Allen, J. (2009) The Effects of Mother Training in Emotion-Rich, Elaborative Reminiscing on Children’s Shared Recall and Emotion Knowledge. Journal of Cognition and Development 10(3), 162-187.

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