The ICA (Institute for Cultural Anthropology) is the semi-scientific journal of Itiwana, study association Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at the Leiden University. The ICA appears twice a year.
Media and Text editors Alma Karavan, Lulia Maria Lazar,
Editor in Chief Liselot Voordouw
Ana M. Chicas-Mosier, Rachel Donald, Malte Gembus
The editors reserve the right to shorten and edit articles or not to post them. Acquisition of (parts of) articles is only permitted after consultation with the editors.
Liselot Voordouw is a third year anthropology student as well as the Communications Officer of the current Itiwana board. She is the Editor in Chief for the ICA and loves photography and travel.
Memory: what have we missed
Certain skill sets have been suggested as uniquely human, which can create a sense of superiority over other living things. However, traits like learning, memory, communication, and emotion have been found across taxa and can connect humanity with the other species around us. These traits may have different implications and patterns in other species but are no less important.
Learning and memory go together. An event that sparks a persistent response is said to have been learned, and the longer that response is maintained, it is stored as a memory. For example, a bird eating a monarch caterpillar will quickly dispel the meal. Many humans have had a similar experience after a few too many drinks or a poorly prepared meal. The bird will quickly learn the pattern and colouration of monarch caterpillars and avoid future consumption, creating a memory. Similarly, humans will avoid that beverage or restaurant in the future. Learning and memory responses are not isolated to vertebrate species (e.g., humans, birds, dogs, etc.). Rather, increasing evidence shows that plants and invertebrate species (think spineless creepy crawlies) learn from their environment and can communicate features of their landscape to others around them. These learned experiences can also genetically impact their offspring. For these reasons, the basic tenets of learning and memory are often challenged by biologists and ecologists as they can be limited in scope when discussing non-human species. Have we defined learning and memory too narrowly and limited the breadth of scientific discovery?
In plants, there are some clear learning and memory responses, and some that we have only begun to understand. In Mimosa pudica, often called the Sensitive Plant, learning can be directly observed through the drooping of leaves in response to repeated stimuli (i.e. touch). In trees, roots and microbiota make up a complex network through which
individual trees communicate with each other and provide nutritive support. Trees operate at a massive timescale compared to human lifespans, which likely contributed to missed evidence of these networks until fairly recently. The trees are communicating, learning, and perhaps even remembering past events and other members of their community. We have only begun to understand the underground network of plants or the full extent of learning and memory capacities in these species. Invertebrates with rapid generation times have also challenged the ways that humans look at learning and memory.
We tend to think of multi-generational learning in the context of stories our elders told us as children. However, simply defining generations can be challenging in some species. Planaria, a type of flatworm, can reproduce through
asexual fission; essentially splitting their own bodies to produce two entirely separate organisms wherein one forms a head and the other forms a tail. This process continues over and over without a clear
end. Asexual reproduction in this manner leaves room to study many types of memories, from genetic materials (i.e., DNA) to whole organisms. When the planaria split, both halves will retain information learned prior to fission. This implies that the memories are not necessarily encoded only in the centralized nervous system but within the genetic information that appears in every cell of the individual (Neuhof, Levin and Rachavi, 2016). This genetic storage of memories is called epigenetics and has been demonstrated to pass important learned information directly from parent to offspring in other species as well. Daphnia spp. are small aquatic crustaceans and the biological darling for this phenomenon. Daphnia develop ‘helmets’ and other protective features depending on their parent’s exposure to predator cues. These ‘helmets’ are a form of genetic memory which protect the offspring without any conscious awareness by the parents. There are many ways to encode long-term memories with and without conscious awareness. Memories are complex and can be encoded through sociality or through genetic material.
As humans, we have likely overlooked many distinct types of learning because they occur at different time and size scales than our biases have allowed us to understand. We have defined these traits in units that make sense to us, which has created limitations in how we observe phenomena in other species. We must recognize how human bias shapes our scientific viewpoints as we continue to discover new types of learning, communication, and memory, and all the rest that we have missed through our narrow lens of the natural world.
Ana M. Chicas-Mosier
Ana M. Chicas-Mosier, Ph.D.
Director of Education, Outreach, and Diversity Programs
Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis
University of Kansas
Dr. Chicas-Mosier received her education from Oklahoma State University (Oklahoma, U.S.A.) in biology and psychology. Her research focused on honey bee learning following toxicant exposure, but she has also conducted research in plant memory, population demography, equity and inclusion, and in higher education spaces. Dr. Chicas-Mosier currently serves as the Director of Education, Outreach, and Diversity Programs at the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis- University of Kansas (Kansas, U.S.A.), where she cultivates a culture of inclusion, inter-disciplinary scientific education, and team-based-success.
Cut off from History
As a child, I never felt a special interest in my grandmother’s stories. They were something that had always been there. I heard them halfway covered by the chatter of my family during Christmas dinners, they were short mentions that served as background noise as we dug into dusty cupboards in search of a needed object. I never saw them as part of History.
I thought my history to be that which I had learned at school, which I had picked up from the pages of books. Kings and politicians, growing metropolises, treaties and wars: I had scribbled them all out on exam papers, traced out what they had called “the history of my country”.
To me History was one thing, and those family stories were another. When my grandmother talked she never mentioned those ministers, heroes or kings: How could they possibly be part of the same tale? I could not see where the stews she taught me to cook or the faded analogue photos in thick, dusty albums fit into those long history lessons. If I came across bullet holes in the heavy metal bed of my great-grandparents, I only viewed them as an ominous episode of conversations among my relatives: isolated, timeless. When my mother complained about nuns in her school pulling her braids, to me it was just that, complaints.
Before I left Spain for Germany, two years ago, I decided to visit my grandmother and have lunch with her for what I knew would be the last time in months. As she served herself some lomo de orza, a kind of meat conserve, she started to reminisce on a particular day of slaughter. She told me that the pigs were often slaughtered during early winter. It was the season where meat could be best kept without it turning bad. It was a social activity. People would gather to work on the meat, and often they would have some drinks and chat late into the night afterwards. Lomo de orza was one of the common ways people in her region would secure provisions for the winter: the pork would be fried in its lard and then left to cool down in a vase, so that the lard would solidify around it and form a protective layer.
My first reaction was to ask myself: “What is she talking about again?”. It was strange for me to see slaughter as a day of celebration. But as she continued to distractedly narrate, I found myself taken on a trip by her words to a city so different to the one I had always known. I looked around me and recognized that “History” from my textbook. Of course such traditions were taken to the city during an awkward rural to urban transition, in the hands of many who had come from villages escaping poverty and in search of work. Of course food was a celebration in a country left hungry by civil war. Suddenly, my grandmother's chatter-stream of memory was not a story, but History.
But why then must I study the king and not the lentil soup? Who decides which stories are relevant and which are not to our understanding of our past? I have often found myself frustrated searching for the experiences of women in a History told by men. Much of what they have created or worked in is simply taken as a given, and they are erased from the narration. I have come closer to finding them in the lentil soup than in the history book.
I ask myself how this influences the way we understand our place in society, history and change. History can never be told in a neutral way because of its complex, multifaceted nature. Empty it out from its chaotic and blurry reminiscences, from its carefully cooked dishes, and what is one left with? A linear story, an empty carcass which has forgotten the past of the vast majority of its population. How can we understand a statue of a powerful king without the sacrifice of the peasant? How can we enjoy the “culture” so many take pride in without thinking of the women who managed to find a way to cook mouth-watering dishes despite the drought, of those who carved instruments and banged rhythms to forget long hours of work? I find this effectively disconnects us from History. It makes us see it as something which we don’t live inside of, it detaches us from our role in change and the construction of society.
One big, dramatic story is not more part of History than one hundred mundane ones. Forgetting the small, common stories completely deforms our understanding of our past. It dehumanizes and makes us disconnect from those who have lived under different times and conditions, it caricaturizes History, leaves it incomplete.
But listening to family stories isn’t just a way to color in the skeleton of History. Sometimes, it shatters it completely. The quick aching recalls of family members or the testimonies historical memory organizations have spent years digging out display a painful period of my country’s recent history in a completely different way of how it is taught in schools. Cutting off these uncomfortable stories directly impacts the structures in place in our states today, legitimizing fortunes and powers achieved during that time, writing over our memory of the crimes committed. The stories are accused of messing with what has already been sealed and left behind, of reopening wounds and rewriting history. What is benefitting of leaving them unheard?
The history I was taught at school left the story of most untold. Of women and their unrecognized domestic labor. Of those who built our cities, of those who died in some king’s war. Of those who developed crafts and knowledge which got claimed by colonizers as theirs. Their history was not written down in textbooks. However, we can still learn it by looking into the plate on our table and listening to our grandmother’s chatter as she serves the meal. And by searching for our past far from those school classes, and closer to humans. Anthropology is the key to memory.
Written by Ana García-Casillas
Based on an conversation between Pablo Pandocchi and his grand mother
Ana García-Casillas is a first-year student at Leiden University, doing her bachelor's in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology.
The Domino Effect
Extractive capitalism has a hegemonic death grip on the world. Despite millennia of evolution, of innovation, of differentiation, it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. From the bathroom stalls of corporate jobs moments away from automation, defeated millennials and cynical Gen Z share memes about a planet on fire, as if self-awareness is the final vanguard of futile protest.
But awareness of the present alone cannot ground reality in a context which inspires action; charting the future demands insight into the past. Understanding the world as it once was renders demands as rights and vision as justice and sustainability as viable. Understanding the world as it once was allows space to imagine what the world could be. Normality is not a bastion of reality; reality is the fluid expression of the many ways the world interacts with itself. Normality is the narrative with which we attempt to catch that expression; normality is hegemony, and hegemony captures the peak of a cultural wave and dictates that the only way is up.
During the Second World War, the highest marginal tax rate for top earners in the USA was 94%. This was, of course, to help fund the war effort—but even after the Allies won, the USA’s top rate remained at 91% into the 1960s. In fact, high taxes were the norm in capitalist countries like the United States until the reign of Thatcher and Reagan, who cut the top rate from 70% to 28% by the time he left office.
Despite a 70% tax rate being the norm just four decades ago, suggesting anything close to that would leave Americans on both sides of the aisle frothing at the mouth. Sweden now boasts the highest tax rate in the world at a mere 53%. And not only are we under-taxing our wealthiest around the globe, they also now exploit tax havens and legal loopholes to ensure their money is kept out of the public purse. Both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, two of the world’s wealthiest men, have successfully avoided paying income tax throughout the years. The UK alone lost an estimated £35 billion in tax last year to avoidance, fraud and non-payment. All sense of justice and equity has been lost to history; the Left may ask for more from those who have the most, but even mainstream parties seem to have lost sense of what constitutes a fair share.
The climate crisis is an existential threat. Navigating it will demand the best of humankind. Yet, most talks of a sustainable future are centred around technological solutions or visionary reform. Whilst technology and visions are crucial, they neither deliver the big picture nor offer a clear path. Our penchant for story-telling paints traversing the unknown as adventures and gambits rather than gambles. At this moment of history, when everything must change, we are in danger of forgetting the well-trodden paths which pierce the darkness of the future.
Building worlds is expensive. Building cohesion is onerous. Both demand story-telling and resources. The only way to make it to the future is to keep a through-line from the past; we must carry our mistakes with us to destroy them and call upon precedent to progress.
Shifting Baseline Syndrome
Our ignorance towards the past makes the future invisible. Environmentalists are now investigating Shifting Baseline Syndrome, a psychological and sociological phenomenon which sees people’s accepted thresholds for environmental conditions be continually lowered. Not only do we get used to things being worse, but we essentially perceive the new standard as normal.
This “new normal” is a world with a high risk of pandemics, extreme weather events, displaced populations, species extinction, and melting ice caps. This new normal is made up of increasing wealth gaps and monopolistic power. This new normal is built on the back of that which has always been normal: exploitation, extractivism and inequality.
Everything is at risk, and everything must change. We cannot win the fight against the climate crisis with the new normal, and we can’t win it with the old normal. But the past is a crowbar in a time of crisis.
We must remember the decades when the world’s wealthiest funded public good and use that reminder to justify overhauling our taxation system. We must remember a time when individual households didn’t have cars, when we didn’t jet back and forth across the world. We must remember when meat was a rare indulgence, when energy supplies were limited. We must remember when it was perfectly acceptable to be bored.
There are dominoes which stand between us and a sustainable future. Let us first topple those which have previously fallen—let us then leave the past behind.
Yuva n Gupta
The concept of “memory” plays quite an essential role in our day-to-day life. It is a widespread belief that life holds value through your memories and experiences. How accurate are these recollections of your experiences?
According to contemporary psychology, memory can be quite misleading as it is popularly believed to be reconstructive.
Reconstructive memory is a theory of memory recall pioneered by Elizabeth Loftus. The theory states that every time we “recall” a “memory”, it is not “recalled” but “reconstructed” by our brain by using various cognitive processes such as perception, imagination, semantic memory, beliefs, etc.
Therefore, the recalling of our memories is influenced by a multitude of factors which affects the accuracy of the memory. This prevents us from obtaining an objectively true recount of events. This recall is distorted from the aforementioned cognitive processes and our relevant “schemas”.
Schemas are sets of information on certain topics or events stored in our brains. These are built through an individual's personal experiences, culture, and social norms. It is dynamic as it is ever evolving. This theory was proposed by Fredrick Bartlett. He claimed that our outlook and “perception” of our world were severely affected by our schemas as they dictated the organisation of information. When we have a unique or generic experience, what we learn from is internalised through socialisation and stored in our schema. This new information can alter or reinforce the existing schema regarding aspects of the experience.
Due to the large impact of schemas in the perception of events and organisation of memory, they play an essential role in memory reconstruction. It is responsible for filling in gaps in our episodic memory using our past experiences as a reference. They fill in these gaps with information regarding the event that is congruent with one’s schema to create a plausible narrative.
This can often lead to the use of untrue information to fill in these gaps, which alters our memory.
These theories have been extensively tested, as seen through studies, key of which include Loftus and Palmer (1974) and Bartlett’s “War Of Ghosts” study. Understanding these studies helps us understand the implication and application of these theories. For our purposes, I will use Loftus and Palmer to provide an example of the impact of reconstructive memory.
Loftus and Palmer studied the effect of triggering separate schemas on the reconstruction of memory. They had two groups who were shown the same clip of an actual automotive accident. After that, they were given a questionnaire to answer. There was one crucial question which differed between the two groups “how fast were the cars going when they __ each other”. In the blank space, Loftus placed verbs of differing intensity. One group had a low-intensity verb, and the other had a high-intensity verb.
This led to the trigger of different schemas for the recall of the event.
In the results, Participants with the high-intensity verbs had an answer which was 6.5 MPH higher than the others. A week later, they were asked if there was any shattered glass in the video (there was none), and more than double the number of people in the high-intensity group claimed there was shattered glass.
Here we can clearly observe the phenomenon of memory reconstruction, as the same event was reconstructed differently in accordance with the schema triggered.
So this begs the question, can memory be trusted? I believe that this is quite a difficult question to answer. While it is displayed to be distorted in nature, is there an alternative? Do we have a choice but to trust our memories? We base our selves and identities on memory. Does this mean that we are never and can never be true to ourselves?
Distrust in memory breeds paranoia. If we cannot trust ourselves, who can we trust?
Suddenly indulging in mass distrust between close relations and oneself will breed nothing but conflict. If these memories are not true, what is this sense of trust based on them, and does it really hold any value?
Due to the wildly distressing notion of suddenly losing trust in all of our social networks, I believe that we must make our memories a basis for our social reality. After all, they are a distorted result of our own schemas. So, even if they are untrue in nature, they are still true to one's internal thoughts and feelings, ergo, true to oneself.
However, we must remain vigilant of the dangerous implications of reconstructive memory.
One such example can be seen through the use of eyewitnesses. According to Psychology Today, 70% of the 349 overturned wrongful convictions in the USA (2021) were made on the basis of eyewitness testimonies. The constitutional rights foundation goes on to claim that according to a survey of prosecution, an estimated 77000 suspects are arrested based on eyewitnesses every year in the US. Unreliability of memory is, therefore, a valid and dangerous issue in our legal systems.
UCLA law professor John Wiley Jr. exclaims, “It’s the most theatrical moment of the trial. Everybody in the jury box looks at the witness, looks at the [eyewitness’s] finger and follows the line right to the defendant.”. Therefore we need to set limitations in regard to their use in legal settings. Elizabeth Loftus herself campaigned for reform to reduce the dependence on eyewitness testimonies in courts of law.
Another pressing implication more applicable to anthropology would be the use of the recounting of events for ethnographic purposes. Ethnographies have relied on the recounting of events by the ethnographers and the subjects themselves. While attention is given to the volatile nature of this information, I believe that its reliability in aiding the understanding of other aspects of the subject is alarming. For example, in “Never in Anger”, Jean Briggs makes use of memory recollection while analysing her subject. She also uses the memory of other tribe members regarding Innutiaq’s behaviour to aid her analysis of his character as an outlier in the tribe. This dependence on her and other tribemates’ recall of Innutiaq’s behaviour could be problematic due to their prevalent schemas. In Jean Briggs’ case, her sexual relations with Innutiaq could affect her analysis. In the tribemate's case, their view of him as an outlier could exaggerate some of his behaviours in their recall, thereby altering jean Briggs’ analysis.
Here we can see potential ways in which reconstructive memories could, in key ways, affect our understanding of cultures. It is imperative that we keep this in mind while analysing and writing ethnographies due to their use in the creation and adaptation of policies that could affect the studied groups from their governments. Any discrepancies could lead to undesirable results, which may harm the communities.
In conclusion, I hope that this article serves as a catalyst for the start of discussion regarding reconstructive memory and its impact on our lives. It plays an integral part in our legal and political system, and it is absolutely imperative that it be taken into consideration when we discuss possible policy discussions and other solutions in order to help different groups.
Yuvan is a a first year cultural anthropology student at Leiden University with a special focus on Psychology and design thinking.
The Social Act we call Memory
It’s a cold early-winter morning in South Brooklyn. The streets are empty ‘probably because it’s only a couple of days til Thanksgiving’, my friend Gabe explains while we enter this warehouse-converted-into-art-gallery space. I have a flight the same day, so there is only time to have a quick look around. The video installation we are seeing is titled ‘The Mathematics of Consciousness’ and consists of a number of rectangle-shaped projections onto a massive wall in the back of the warehouse. I see numbers being projected into the little spaces (which I guess is expected). These are suddenly replaced by abstract forms. I lose attention when a scene appears where two women walk around dancingly in an office wearing grandma’s underwear, as often so with this type of contemporary art; I simply don’t know what to do with it, but maybe that’s the point? I look around a bit more and think about the clothes I still have to wash and the flights I still have to book when a single sentence coming through the loudspeakers of the video installation brings me back: ‘Experience will be splintered into as many fragments as there are moments in life. Every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.’ There it is again: a thought that seems to follow me, or am I just hyper-aware of it?
I’m sitting on a plane from Mexico City to Atlanta, with memories from the last 17 years running through my head. I lived in Guatemala and Mexico for most of my 20’s and early 30’s, and at many moments I decided that this was where I was going to spend the rest of my life (but things always turned out differently). Now I am back for a short visit to places where many experiences and encounters that shaped, shook and confounded me took place. I remember seeing this enormous monster of a city from above for the first time when I was 18 years old. I remember saying goodbye to my first girlfriend at Benito Juarez airport before she was travelling back to Germany. I remember the emotion on the plane before being picked up at this airport by someone else many years later, someone who became a partner and then an ex. I remember coming here last year with a different person. Today, I am back and about to see a childhood friend who happens to be in the city. This space melts all of these memories together in my own imagination. I have never lived in CDMX (Ciudad de México), yet when I see, hear, and feel this city, it brings me back to distant moments (or temporalities, as the anthropologist might say). I look around at the passive faces surrounding me and can’t stop thinking that nobody else on this plane will understand the emotional and cognitive process I am going through while looking out of the plane window. But what if they are all engaged in their own introspective processes: anticipating a warm family welcome, a difficult conversation about their marriage, remembering a time when they landed in Benito Juarez that shaped, shook or confounded them. Memory seems to be an individual process; each of us sitting on isolated plane seats, in deep introspection, without a way of making others fully understand the emotions and feelings attached to such places, pasts and acts of remembrance. I recall reading somewhere that every cell in the human body will have reproduced itself within a cycle of 7 years (watch out - social anthropologist talking about biology here). The question then is: What actually connects us to that person we were seven years ago, or to the adolescent, child and baby we once were? What if not the fact that we remember, combine and conflate information into the mix, mesh and mediation that we call memory. Stories we have heard about ourselves (and others), visions and observations we think we experienced, together with information wrenched from other sources such as books or films, all of these are fused in the creative act of retrospective (and anticipatory) negotiation. The imagination, mediation and negotiation of pasts (and futures) does not take place in some kind of void where we remember isolated scenes from our past. ‘A memory occurs to us because we are surrounded by other memories that link to it’ is what Maurice Halbwachs wrote almost a hundred years ago (1925). This is precisely the (very anthropological) point that runs through my head while the plane touches down on the tarmac. Memory is a social act; introspective memory comes alive in the flux of human interaction, an intersubjective ‘glue’ crucial in creating moral communities. In many communities, it is precisely these stories of the past that shape notions of belonging as well as ones anticipated for the future.
I am sitting on the plane again, now on my way back home (London). While scrolling through photos, I start to think that this trip through my own past itself is already becoming a memory. I envision and anticipate how I will tell the stories about it to people back home. Past, present and future are always connected in the eternal flow of the social act we call memory.