How Human Memory is Fundamentally Cultural

A new review of psychological research explores how culture permeates and shapes human memory—what we remember, recall, and forget.

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In a new article in the Annual Review of Psychology, author Qi Wang of Cornell University reviews the research evidence that suggests that human memory is intrinsically shaped by culture. Wang then uses the examples of working, episodic, and autobiographical memory to show how culture is implicated at the very foundation of memory.

“Rather than merely being a neurocognitive faculty within the individual, human memory functions as an open system thoroughly immersed in cultural contexts,” Wang writes. 
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Psychology has been criticized for its WEIRD problem where research is primarily conducted in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies and then exported to other places. Cultural realities take a backseat in the psychological understandings of people and are rarely considered central to the human experience.

This has been problematized by numerous researchers who have pointed to psychology’s colonial influence in other parts of the world, but also in the United States. Often, exporting psychiatric treatments leads to harm in indigenous communities, as they either already have or are trying to develop their own systemic ways of dealing with human distress. In this article, Wang shows that even a basic cognitive faculty like human memory is deeply cultural.

Wang begins by noting that traditional psychological models of memory consider it a neurocognitive faculty—an inner psychological process detached from context or content. But different cultures have different concepts of what memory is and what causes the loss of memory. The context in which memory is constructed, lost, or recalled is essential to this understanding.

Wang reviews decades of evidence showing that memory is formed through cultural frameworks. For example, memory depends on how we perceive the world, which in turn depends on culture. Culture can shape people’s sense of space and perception of odor, color, and taste. Researchers note that people’s experience is dependent on language, and different languages have their own structure and logic. For example, people are better at recognizing colors (color memory) based on their words for those colors in their language.

Additionally, culture influences how people categorize the world, which influences how the world is remembered. For example, people in the Wichi community in the Chaco forest of Argentina categorize animals based on ecological-social relations, like whether the animal is aggressive or peaceful, and how useful it is.

Culture also plays a crucial role in how we encode information we perceive. Wang points to studies showing that while Westerners often focus on individual objects (analytic perception), East Asians attend to the context in which an object is presented (holistic perception). This influences what people remember. A study revealed that Japanese participants were better at recognizing objects when they were presented against the original background instead of a new background. In contrast, the background had little influence on North American participants.

Culture also influences how we perceive others’ emotions; in a study, Japanese participants perceived the central individual’s emotional state as dependent on the emotional expressions of figures standing in the background:

“They judged, for instance, the central figure’s happiness expression as less happy when the background figures expressed anger rather than happiness.”

As opposed to this, Westerners focused solely on the central figure’s emotional state to rate his intensity of emotion.

Wang writes that memory is ecologically based—different cultures with different ecological demands “can result in different uses and, in turn, in different characteristics of memory.” For example, children in aboriginal communities who are hunter-foragers have advanced visuospatial memory. As shown in the case of London taxi drivers, repeated demands of the job can even change the brain structure.

This influences people’s view of time and the importance given to the past. In a study, Chinese participants considered past events as closer to the present, more relevant to current problem solving, and remembered them better than North Americans. This is due to the East Asian cyclical understanding of time as compared to the Western concept of time as linear.

Memory is especially prone to reconstruction and changes. Wang notes that the way things are remembered and recalled depends on one’s cultural framework. In one seminal study, Cambridge University students who read Native American fairy tales and then were asked to recall them over several years tended to remember the stories as increasingly conforming to their own culture—their reconstruction of the story was dependent on their own cultural frameworks.

Culture influences which emotions are valued and whether there are higher levels of independence or interdependence, and these factors inform memory organization and recall. For example, in Western cultures, happiness is an overt goal and highly valued, whereas, in many Asian cultures, life is seen as a series of ups and downs—this influences memory.

In one study, despite having similar experiences, European Americans remembered more pleasant experiences over the week than Asian Americans. In another study, where they had to perform tasks such as shooting a basketball, European Americans remembered themselves performing better than reality. Asians remembered their own performance either accurately or a little worse.

Other research has shown that Korean children playing games remembered what others did a lot better (after a week of the game session), while European American children remembered their own roles more accurately.

Wang writes that culture influences how we communicate our memories, whether in private contemplation or in public. For example, for bilingual individuals, their sense of self (independent and interdependent) can often change depending upon the language they are speaking. Whether they recall more relationship-oriented memories or self-events is influenced by the language they are speaking in at that time.

The author then gives three examples of how culture influences working memory, episodic memory, and autobiographical memory. Working memory is the mental skill to hold information for a short while so we can work on it. In one study, three indigenous cultures where Western schooling was recently introduced showed changes in working memory processing. The school-going children showed primacy effect (remembering information that comes first), recency effect (remembering information that is last/most recent), and serial clustering effect, reflecting Western schooling’s emphasis on rote learning. Children who had not been schooled remembered things based on semantic clustering (organizing information based on meaningfulness).

Episodic memory refers to recollecting specific events at a particular time and place and is shaped by culture. Studies show that people in cultures with negative stereotypes towards aging show a more pronounced memory decline. The level of independence or interdependence also influences how people encode information. In one study, Westerners remembered more self-owned objects than Asians, who tended to remember self or other-owned objects equally and remembered mother-owned objects the most.

Autobiographical memory “encompasses memories of significant personal experiences.” Since ideas of self vary cross-culturally, the way memory resources are allocated is dependent on cultural goals. Memories in line with cultural goals and expectations would be related to a sense of well-being (person-culture-fit framework).

This was seen in a study wherein cultures where autonomous/independent self is valued, trauma survivors without PTSD had more self-focused memories than those diagnosed with PTSD. The opposite was true for cultures that value relational selves; here, people with PTSD remembered more self-focused memories than those who did not have PTSD.

The author concludes by noting that “Culture pervades human memory.” Despite this review, research lags behind in understanding memory in its context and history, which could fundamentally alter the psychological research paradigm.

 

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Wang, Q. (2020). The Cultural Foundation of Human Memory. Annual Review of Psychology72, 151-179. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-070920-023638 (Link)

39 COMMENTS

  1. Lord! Yet another researcher promoting wokeness!

    This “different” viewpoint might be worthwhile if it really led to any revelations about memory that were useful.

    Memories influenced by culture? Do you think? That’s probably why some people become multilingual more easily – they spoke those different languages in earlier lifetimes. Oops! Not sure the R word is allowed in woke culture!

    I know one person who wrote down almost everything she could remember about her past in a book. I know many more people who have many ancient memories but who aren’t really writers, so they just tell their friends about their memories. But this woman (Dena Merriam) who wrote up all she could remember has been a Norman, an Indian, a Persian, a Japanese, an African, a Russian and an American. So, what “culture” does this woman actually belong to? The only answer is “human culture!” And that does not even include all of her memories, because she also remembers living between lives in a place of Light. So she is part of a non-human culture as well!

    Can we get over Woke and realize that we are spiritual beings? I’m not going to stop writing about this until I either die or get drowned out by others who finally begin to realize that this has something to do with them and their possible futures.

    • The article lists several examples of how memory works differently depending on the participants’ cultural background and it has nothing to do with “wokeness”.
      To your point, if people are spiritual beings not tied to any individual culture, could you (re)write your comment in such a way that it can be understood by all humans and is not tied to any specific language?

          • Alright, then you are being simply… ???. Just because we are spiritual beings does not mean we can ignore language and the various other mechanisms we use to relate to each other. Sure you can communicate using just telepathy, if you are good, but that is not where most of us are at. Language remains workable, particularly when we include the use of it for expressions of spiritual understanding. I am not aware of any culture that does not have such concepts in its language.

          • Now you are talking about communication, not memory. And I think what this study was really about was how people communicate what they remember. Sure that goes through cultural filters. But we know that communicating involves cultural filters. We see that in how people from different cultures describe their NDEs. That just means language is an imperfect method for describing a memory. It doesn’t mean that the actual contents of the memory depend on the culture the person was a part of when he/she acquired the memory.

          • Sure, but how did the researchers know which objects were recognized and which weren’t? By the people being studied saying so, right? So they don’t know for sure how the perception was stored. They just know that the person couldn’t give it back to them. So, are we studying memory or remembering?

      • That’s the problem with “woke.” There may be a version of it that is authentically sincere. But a lot of people are trying to ride it like a bandwagon, and they have no real sense of how conflicted they sound when they push cultural sensitivity while ignoring the oppressive nature of the medical model (DSM).

        • While any movement or ideology can be misused by some of its proponents, that doesn’t automatically negate its underlying principles.

          In any case it still doesn’t make any sense in reference to this article, as it’s merely about how certain cultural values and/or practices influence the formation of memories (and only references DSM diagnoses in the context of saying how people are more likely to get diagnosed when their style of mnemonic focus conflicts with their host society’s).

          That is not “woke”, “woke” would be saying that the Western way is inferior/defective; the author never does that or implies that it should be done.

          (But I agree that pushing cultural sensitivity doesn’t mean the pseudo-scientific nature of the medical model should be overlooked, in fact I think that the DSM should itself simply be seen as a cultural artifact.)

          • I admit my use of the term “woke” is sloppy here. But my point is, I suppose, that the whole “cultural context” argument sounds hollow to me. This is not the key to understanding people, Spirit is.

          • I didn’t say culture was irrelevant. I said is not key. Spirit is key. Why does an old white man love African rhythms so much? Because he’s a spiritual being! I’ve never been anywhere near Africa this lifetime. That’s not “my culture.” But I love it as if it were. Why? Spirit.

  2. “Cultural realities take a backseat in the psychological understandings of people and are rarely considered central to the human experience.” Which is a real problem, since in America, we’re in the midst of a “culture war.”

    And the DSM deluded psychological and psychiatric professions are hell bent on destroying Western civilization. To cover up the reality that, likely the majority of them, are nothing but child abuse cover uppers, for the religions, and the wealthy “cocaine dealers,” who walk through the doors of those churches.

    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo
    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/
    https://books.google.com/books?id=xI01AlxH1uAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

    “exporting psychiatric treatments leads to harm in indigenous communities, as they either already have or are trying to develop their own systemic ways of dealing with human distress.”

    This comment implies the American (and Indian) psychologists still don’t know that the “psychiatric treatments” cause harm to Western people, thus they should NOT be exported worldwide.

    The ADHD drugs and antidepressants can create the “bipolar” symptoms. And the antipsychotics/neuroleptics can create the positive symptoms of “schizophrenia,” via anticholinergic toxidrome; as well as the negative symptoms of “schizophrenia,” via neuroleptic induced deficit syndrome.

    https://www.alternet.org/2010/04/are_prozac_and_other_psychiatric_drugs_causing_the_astonishing_rise_of_mental_illness_in_america/
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxidrome
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroleptic-induced_deficit_syndrome

    I don’t know how many times I must mention this, on this website alone, prior to the psychologists garnering insight into this reality. The psych drugs are “neurotoxins.”

    “As opposed to this, Westerners focused solely on the central figure’s emotional state to rate his intensity of emotion.”

    I think this is likely a problem, more so for the systemic child abuse covering up, justifiably guilt ridden psychological industry than for the rest of Western society.

    “repeated demands of the job can even change the brain structure.”

    Of course one’s brain adjusts to their job, or whatever they’re researching. When I was a kitchen/bath designer, I was dreaming in numbers and designs, since I was constantly calculating tile quantities needed. Once the banksters’ destroyed my industry, and I concentrated more on psychopharmacological research.

    It was harder for me to estimate the size of a store, in a NY second, which prevented me from getting a job. But I’m sure I wouldn’t have wanted to work for that a–hole anyway. By the way, I got in the top 99.95% of my math SATs, so it’s not likely he hired a more mathematically inclined person than me.

    “In a study, Chinese participants considered past events as closer to the present, more relevant to current problem solving, and remembered them better than North Americans. This is due to the East Asian cyclical understanding of time as compared to the Western concept of time as linear.”

    I doubt that is really the truth. I think it’s more about the fact that North American history classes have been about forcing children to memorize dates for history tests. Rather than actually educating North American children about the truth behind our history, and allowing them to learn and garner insight from our real history.

    Like, for example, that the psychologists’ psychiatric partners in crime, at the direction of the globalist Western banksters, were actually the one’s responsible for the Nazi holocaust, all to cover up the fraud of the central banking system.

    https://breggin.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/01/psychiatrysrole.pbreggin.1993.pdf
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VauMFaHJT0

    “For example, in Western cultures, happiness is an overt goal and highly valued, whereas, in many Asian cultures, life is seen as a series of ups and downs—this influences memory.”

    My experience was that a child rape covering up psychologist wanted to destroy the happiness of my American family, for satanic, unhappy, jealous, child rape covering up, child sacrificing, “cocaine dealing,” Russian and Ukrainian pedophiles in America.

    So, I’m quite certain the systemic, child rape covering up American psychological industry is on the wrong side. But this does, of course, lead to “ups and downs” in one’s life, including extreme defamations of one’s character, which is illegal.

    So those of us living in Western society, dealing with these scientifically “invalid” psychological and psychiatric systems, should absolutely NOT be exporting these systemic, child rape covering up psychological and psychiatric systems to the rest of the world. These satanic systems need to be ended instead.

    “Western schooling’s emphasis on rote learning.”

    As somewhat pointed out above, the Western school system is totally upside down and backwards. As any concerned parent, with a brain in their head, knows already. For God’s sake, my school’s social workers want to get their grubby little hands on the well behaved children, because they got 100% on their state standardized tests. Off to prep school, darling, since your school district is “not equipped to deal with the most intelligent children.” WTF?

    “Studies show that people in cultures with negative stereotypes towards aging show a more pronounced memory decline.”

    Don’t get me started on the total disrespect of the wisdom of the elders in America, by the US medical community, and society as a whole.

    “Westerners remembered more self-owned objects than Asians, who tended to remember self or other-owned objects equally and remembered mother-owned objects the most.”

    Oh, but the American psychological and psychiatric industries are all about defaming and attempting to murder, and steal from, the American mommies. And, trust me, I have medical proof of 14 attempted murders, and legal proof of the attempted thievery of all profits of my work, and money, by psychologists.

    And the psychological and psychiatric industries have delusions that all stay at home moms, who are also artists working on our portfolios, and very active volunteers, are “irrelevant to reality,” “w/o work, content, and talent,” and “unemployed,” without ever looking at our work. Then, when they finally look at our work, they conclude our work is “insightful” and “work of smart female.” Then the satanic child rape covering up psychological system attempts to steal all our work, because it’s “too truthful.”

    “Memories in line with cultural goals and expectations would be related to a sense of well-being (person-culture-fit framework).”

    But since the goals of the psychological and psychiatric industries are covering up child abuse, at any cost, for their religions. Maintaining that business is NOT in the best interests, “well-being,” of those who work within those DSM deluded industries. Since the goals of the DSM worshipping “mental health” industries are satanic. And the DSM “bible” is a child abuse covering up “bible,” by design, even according to the ethical people within your own industry.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1

    “Despite this review, research lags behind in understanding memory in its context and history, which could fundamentally alter the psychological research paradigm.”

    Yes, psychological research lags behind, because too many of the psychologists bought into the scientific fraud based, psychiatric industry’s, systemic child abuse covering up, DSM “bible.” And their iatrogenic illness creation business.

    Wake up psychologists and psychiatrists, repent, and utilize your malpractice insurance for what it was intended. Stop defaming people with your “invalid” DSM disorders, and killing people with your neurotoxic psychiatric drugs. You’re murdering “8 million” innocent people EVERY year.

    https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2015/mortality-and-mental-disorders.shtml

    We need an end to our modern day, ongoing, psychiatric/psychological/social worker, et al holocaust. Wake up, American (and India) psychologists!

    • How are you defining Western civilization? (Religious or secular? Most psychologists are not religious I would imagine. Also, nowadays most psychologists might be more on the side of *over*reporting child abuse [think of the false memory syndrome in California in the 1990s]). (I agree with you that we should not be exporting biopsychopharamcology to the rest of the world.)

    • Are we really speaking of memory here, or of our interpretations of experience? Memory can be accessed and recovered with a high degree of accuracy, but the ordinary person, when simply asked to recall something they experienced, will ordinarily do this quite sloppily.

      Sloppy stories of past experience are not always therapeutically useful, which is one reason most talk therapies underperform. There are various ways around that problem.

      • I think most psychological research nowadays (could be wrong but that’s my impression) shows that memory and interpretation of experience are virtually the same thing, and that memories can be easily manipulated (both created and expunged, and not just in “ordinary people”).

        • Well, that may well be the case. But since when is someone who visits Mad In America all the time going to rely on psychological research for the definitive data on how the mind works? I don’t, and that’s for sure.

          How does a person know what he/she has experienced? One way is direct knowingness, without relying on mental recordings (memory). And the other way is through consulting one’s “records” (memories). This is similar to how a historian figures our what really happened a long time ago. But we know this way of discovering data (truth?) has problems, whether the records are in a file drawer or in a mind. The records are what they are. Do they amount to a perfect record of what happened? No. Can they be alterered? Yes. Can they be interpreted different ways by different people? Yes. But the records are what they are.

          So I think psychology has the records themselves (memory) all confused with the process of digging up and interpreting those records (remembering).

          It is in the best interests if criminals, I might point out, to invalidate the reliability of memory as much as possible, as this is quite commonly what is used (in places like courts of law) to get them into trouble. So, unfortunately, the profession as it is currently constituted has a certain vested interest in research findings that show memory to be unreliable. I don’t believe memory is that unreliable. Remembering is another story.

  3. I guess you could say memory is shaped by culture, if you consider that the best I remembered my homework and what I needed to know for tests was to associate it with what we were watching on tv the day or evening before. From that, one could consider that memory is not so much culture, but association. But, that’s traditional old thought. Will I remember this? Maybe yes and maybe no. Sometimes, tv is just not as interesting as it used to be. Oh, there is another point about memory- emotion; one’s emotional state at the time can determine memory. That could be why so much of memory seems to be lost while under the “spell” of psycho-drugs and therapies, etc. They dull the emotions to nothing. Of course there are other things from the drugs and therapies that affect the memory. So, my unacademic, naive conclusion is that memory is not so much affected maybe by culture, as just by our everyday lives. Thank you.

    • Again, you’re talking about the remembering process, not the recording process. I am confident in describing memory itself as simply a huge array of “pictures.” The “pictures” store ALL perceptics, not just sight, including emotions and thoughts.

      The remembering process, on the other hand, is very problematic and can be injured, modified, disabled, and so forth.

      Memory is a little like a huge library. Well, how do you find the book you want (or need?). That’s a whole separate process. What if someone blows up your index card system? Or you never bother to create one? Then your ability to remember accurately will suffer greatly.

        • Well, there we go. That’s the argument, then.

          My information is that the recording process is entirely below the conscious level, whereas to remember usually takes some amount of conscious effort. They could not possibly operate by similar processes, as various techniques can be used to recover memories of events that the being was never even consciously aware of.

          • I’m not sure of how you then prove the existence of said “recording process”, or well-done studies that have shown participants remembering things they were not previously conscious of (how is that tested? Maybe they simply forgot they were conscious of them previously, for example.)

          • The modern work was started by Wilder Penfield. That work is summarized in books like I’m OK You’re OK. It has been continued along one line by hypnotherapists. On a different line, Hubbard used Dianetics techniques to find such recordings around 1950 and subsequently. He later used a meter to separate “real” memories from “dub-in.” Meditators have discovered past life memories using sheer mental focus. The recordings are definitely there, and there are many ways to dig them up in addition to conscious recall.

  4. Actually, I was wondering if this discussion of memory may be a slightly moot point. Yes, each one of us is shaped by our culture, our society, our nationality, etc. etc. etc. But, in the end, the actual memory may be completely individual. The problem has always been that we have tried really hard to group people by this or that; i.e. “Fill in the Blank.” And, that might very well be our failure. Memory boils down to what is important to each person. This is not moral relativism. It just is. Thank you.

    • For many reasons beyond the sphere of “mental health” it is important to get memory right. If it does constitute something along the lines of a “library” of all experience, then that opens up a new way to learn more about our past – our history. Initial results of this are already a part of the materials I am studying, and a different form of the “data recovery” process has been used by remote viewers with very promising (surprising? – not to me) results.

      Developing reliable ways to retrieve memories with the least amount of alteration due to language and other cultural limitations is a whole other subject. But if psychology can’t agree on what memory is, then they can never find ways to use it successfully in therapy (assuming they really want to.)

      A much more perverse, if possibly more accurate, interpretation of what psychology wants to do with memory is find new and better ways to kill it, destroy it, or invalidate it so that we can’t use it to discover their past crimes.

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