Situated forgetting: Forgetting in context

As mainstream cognitive psychology has moved toward the functional (constructive, motivated, selective) view of remembering that we have described, it has increasingly stressed the central role of the “context” in determining what is remembered vs. forgotten. So far we have highlighted two aspects of the remembering context that might influence forgetting: individual motivations and goals, and social motivations and goals. In this section, we discuss a view of forgetting where context plays an even more pivotal role: situated forgetting. Over the last 20 years, philosophers of cognitive science have proposed that human cognitive processing is “hybrid”: including not only the individual brain and body, but also the environment with its social and technological resources. This view has been labelled as “situated”, “distributed”,“extended”, or “embedded” cognition, proposing that an individual’s neural system does not act in causal isolation from its environmental and social context (see Barnier et al., 2008; Michaelian & Sutton, 2013).

Distributed cognition and situated forgetting

Within the situated cognition framework, the human brain is seen as embedded in and extended into its world (Clark & Chalmers, 1998; Wheeler, 2005), where it rarely performs cognitive operations in isolation. Rather, intelligent action is conceptualized as the outcome of the cooperation or “coupling” of neural, bodily and external systems in complex webs of“continuous reciprocal causation” (Clark 1997, pp. 163—6). Applying this framework to memory, philosophers argue that humans augment their relatively unstable individual memories, which are not typically stored as discrete, fully-formed units but as distributed representations, with more stable external “scaffolding” (Sutton, 2015a; Wilson, 2005).They form temporarily integrated larger cognitive systems that incorporate distinct, but complementary, internal and external components. As Andy Clark puts it, “our brains make the world smart so that we can be dumb in peace” (Clark, 1997, p. 180). Memory systems are seen as extending the natural, technological, and social environment. This approach builds on Bartlett’s (1932) work on remembering as the context-dependent compiling of materials from changing “interest-carried traces”; Vygotsky’s (1978) analysis of how children’s memory is transformed as they incorporate the ability to use artificial signs and cultural operations; and Halbwachs’s (1980) stress on “the necessity of an affective community” in structuring and maintaining memory. A rich interdisciplinary literature now seeks to update and implement these ideas (Bietti & Sutton, 2015; Brown & Reavey, 2015; Donald, 1991; Heersmink, 2018; Hirst & Manier, 2008; Nelson, 2003; Rowlands, 1999; Rubin, 1995; Sutton, 2015b; Wagoner, Bresco de Luna, & Zadeh, 2020;Welzer & Markowitsch, 2005;Wertsch, 2002).

Most discussions of situated or distributed cognition have focused on the way an individual’s memory system might extend to incorporate various technologies. For instance, an abstract artist may work incessantly with a sketchpad because imagining an artwork in the mind’s eye will not successfully allow the perception, creation, and transformation of the right aesthetic patterns (van Leeuwen, Verstijnen, & Hekkert, 1999). The sketchpad isn’t just a convenient storage bin for pre-existing visual images: the ongoing externalizing and reperceiving is an intrinsic part of artistic cognition itself (Clark, 2001). Other frequently cited examples include the tools and objects used to process orders in a cafe, the notes and records used to write an academic paper, or the use of particular glasses by bartenders in remembering cocktail orders (Beach, 1988; Clark, 1997; Hutchins, 1995; Kirsh, 2006).

More recently, a growing body of research in cognitive psychology has examined the interaction between external resources and the remembering and forgetting that happens within the heads of individuals (Finley et al., 2018). Some of this research reiterates the assumptions that outsourcing memory to external resources and external storage—replacing internal storage—represents a negative outcome, a memory failure. For instance, recent findings suggest that taking photos during experiences reduce individuals’ abilities to accurately recall details later (Henkel, 2014), labelled the “photo-taking impairment effect” (Soares & Storm, 2018). But in such studies, participants are not allowed to review or interact with these photos, and other research on automatic cameras suggests photos can provide valuable memory cues for people with memory impairments (Loveday & Conway, 2011). Sparrow et al. (2011) found that people who could save information for later had impaired memory for the contents of the information but enhanced memory for where to find it, suggesting that external tools can shape the value of different kinds of information for internal memory.

In this context, forgetting can be seen as complementary to remembering. The storage of information which is less self-relevant or which is computationally costly might be offloaded onto the world, so that individuals can safely forget some information that they would have to hold internally if the environment was less structured or stable (see also Risko & Gilbert, 2016). Nevertheless, it is fair to say that researchers’ focus has generally been on how situated memory, memory extended beyond the brain, can reduce forgetting. There has been less discussion of ways in which the use of objects may promote forgetting of material that is redundant, unnecessary, or unwanted, consistent with the increasingly clearly articulated view of forgetting as active and motivated when applied to internal individual memory within cognitive science (e.g., Anderson & Hulbert,2021).The functional approach to remembering and forgetting recognizes that what and how we forget is as important as what and how we remember. More work could be done to identify how people use technological resources to manage the balance between remembering and forgetting, and what kinds of new technologies could support the maintenance of this balance rather than a “store everything” approach.

An individual’s memory is also situated more broadly in their physical and cultural environment. Broader cultural symbols—such as museums, memorials, and monuments—may serve to shape and support an individual’s memory, which is seen in these interdisciplinary' literatures as notoriously fallible. These external objects are considered relatively stable and secure supplements to our internal storage systems. By this view, because neural processes are active, constructive, and selective, we rely on information outsourced to more enduring and unchanging cultural symbols (Clark, 1998; Donald, 1998). Similar to the research on memorysupporting technologies, research has focused mostly on how cultural symbols promote remembering, with less discussion of the balance between remembering and forgetting.

There are some notable exceptions however, which promise an interesting integration of approaches to forgetting from the social sciences and from cognitive psychology' (Connerton, 2008; Erdelyi, 2008; Singer & Conway, 2008; Wessel & Moulds, 2008). Objects that act as cultural symbols are not always intended to persist unchanged, and even those that are intended to last may not do so (Bowker 2005; Malafouris 2004; Sutton 2008b). By preserving or highlighting certain features of the past, or rendering others open to dispute or renegotiation, cultural symbols can act as agents of forgetting. This is most obvious in cases of “repressive erasure” (Connerton 2008, pp. 60-61) such as the politically motivated airbrushing of a person from a photograph (e.g., the case ofVladimir Clementis described by Milan Kundera; Kundera 1980). But objects can also play more subtle roles in encouraging forgetting. In certain African and Melanesian cultures, for example, some artifacts and structures “are made only to be abandoned immediately to decay”, ephemeral monuments which may be the means by which “the members of the society' get rid of what they no longer need or wish to remember” (Forty 1999, pp. 4-5). In the Melanesian society described by Kiichler (1999), an elaborate memorial device called a “malangann” is carved after someone’s death. But instead of being installed as a permanent physical reminder, it stands on the grave for one night only before being abandoned or destroyed. Likewise, while places, buildings, or other physical locations do often support remembering, acting as key features of the cognitive (and affective and social) environment in which we reinstate or reconstruct the past, geographical sites too are vulnerable to change, reinterpretation, or erasure (Casey, 1987,1992). In many projects of“urban renewal”, for example, the physical destruction of existing communities is accompanied by a loss of the memories and traditions of the neighbourhoods in question, leaving only partial clues in a landscape of scars (Klein, 1997).

 
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