Brain scans show how "collective narration" shapes our memories

The "themes" of memories leave distinct patterns on the brain.


History is a collection of dates, facts, and figures, but on a deeper level, it’s a story that stitches those facts together. These stories get passed down from generation to generation, and according to recent research, leave indelible marks on our brains in the form of “collective memories.” These can hold a powerful sway over the way we view our societies and ourselves.

Brain scans analyzed by scientists in France show that our brains actually record a “collective memory” in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in decision and memory. That collective memory is informed by cultural cues, the media, or prevailing attitudes. Importantly, these collective memories aren’t necessarily factual. Instead, they’re selective outlines that help us organize historical facts into a coherent story.

Pierre Gagnepain, the study’s lead author, tells Inverse that these findings show just how deeply culture can penetrate our brains, and ultimately shape the way we see our own, personal memories.

The paper was published Monday in Nature Communications.

“History largely relies on testimony,” says Gagnepain. “But what if these individuals’ memories are influenced and biased by the collective narration? This is why it is important to study how collective and individual memory are co-constructed together, because it is hard to make sense of one level without the other.”

How narrative shapes memory

Before the team could study how overarching narratives are recorded in the brain, they had to find a particularly poignant example of one. They settled on French newscasts that discussed World War II between 1980 and 2010 and actual photos from that time period presented at the Caen Memorial Museum.

This study looked at how the French collective memory of World War II triggers specific patterns of brain activity in French citizens. 

Wikimedia Commons 

The team chose that period specifically because a “new narrative” for French collective memory emerged during that time. That new narrative included widespread acknowledgment of the atrocities of the Holocaust and trials that acknowledge the role that the French state played in the deportation and murder of Jews.

At the museum, the scientists created a walkthrough that referenced the themes they found in the French newscasts and had 24 people go on a self-guided tour of the exhibit, which included historical photographs. The next day the scientists asked the participants to indicate whether they remembered those photos while they scanned their brains.

Collective memories, or the narratives imposed by society on historical events, are also recorded in the brain, fMRI analysis shows. The blue represents the areas in the brain where scientists believe these collective memories are processed. 

Nature Communications/Gagnepain

Their analysis of that brain activity showed that people remembered the content of the photos. But they also remembered the larger themes that were attached to those photos. The memory of that narrative showed a distinct pattern in their brains, that they argue shows that the medial prefrontal cortex has the ability to remember a “collective viewpoint.”

Importantly, the team believes that these collective viewpoints are incredibly powerful. In the paper, they argue that people defer to these collective memories in lieu of their actual experiences when they’re asked to remember something, suggesting that these memories are “co-constructed” and are interwoven as the brain encodes memories.

Left out of the collective memory

Ultimately Gagnepain says the results show that these narratives have a strong amount of neural sticking power, which actually raises some bigger questions: What happens when your story is left out of that collective narrative?

The Caen Memorial Museum is examines the history of World War II in France, in particular the allied invasion of Normandy in on D-Day. 

Wikimedia Commons 

Historical bias has a tendency to leave out people’s perspectives. Dominant historical narratives may not always include acknowledgement of everyone’s experiences. Look at the way Christopher Columbus was once hailed as a heroic explorer when in reality, he brought violence and disease to indigenous communities who were left unacknowledged. Recall how the contribution of female scientists and mathematicians to NASA’s hallmark projects like the Apollo mission, was often overlooked.

"Do they fit with the collective narration, are they even integrated in the collective narration?"

Creating dominant narratives that don’t include a wide variety of perspectives, Gagnepain says, can be harmful to people whose experiences aren’t defined by that narrative. He explains that sharing these memories induces a strong social component that facilities the sharing of experiences with others.

“Collective representations constitute a common framework extending individual minds and supporting interpersonal communication and memory sharing between individuals,” says Gagnepain.

But what happens when that “common” experience doesn’t actually fit with your own life? In the paper, the authors suggest that the ability to feel represented by that narrative likely plays a fundamental role in our sense of well-being. In turn, when people are left out that narrative, that could damage their mental health.

Gagnepain argues that, on a personal level, it’s important to question how your own life events are being processed at a collective level. Do they fit with the collective narration, or are they not even integrated?

The answers to these questions may have an impact on your mental health, he says.

This paper takes a sweeping, philosophical approach to the neuroscience of memory. At this point, they can only show the distinct way that narratives are encoded in our brains, even if the consequences aren’t always as clear. We may not understand how these marks on our brains affect us, but they are there.

It has long been hypothesized that individual recollection fits collective memory. To look for a collective schema, we analyzed the content of 30 years of media coverage of World War II on French national television. We recorded human brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging as participants recalled World War II displays at the Caen Memorial Museum following an initial tour. We focused on the medial prefrontal cortex, a key region for social cognition and memory schemas. The organization of individual memories captured using the distribution of the functional magnetic resonance imaging signal in the dorsal part of the medial prefrontal cortex was more accurately predicted by the structure of the collective schema than by various control models of contextual or semantic memory. Collective memory, which exists outside and beyond individuals, can also organize individual memories and constitutes a common mental model that connects people’s memories across time and space.
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