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An Explorit "Science Bytes" article by Evelyn Buddenhagen (1992)

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by Evelyn Buddenhagen (1992)

A recent newspaper ad offers yet another gift idea for a holiday season. This particular gift, clearly for an adult, is priced moderately at $39, and crafted with beauty and elegance. It is called a Memory Box. If you were given such a box, what would you put into it and why?

Perhaps a ticket stub, dried flowers, a wine label, a child's tooth? Or, what about a newspaper clipping, a hand-knitted bootie, a puppy's first collar?

Objects evoke memory, powerful ones, if chosen well. Such memories may be pleasurable or painful, joyful or poignant, old or recent, private or public. Though each object is but a small and discrete thing, presumably each would have been chosen because of its wider tableau of emotions and associations that are precious and meaningful. A memento is not unlike a computer user who finds deeper and broader information behind each function window that opens onto other fields of memory. They represent one of Memory's potent functions, that of providing links between past and present, and, if we allow it, Memory reduces the incongruities between the two.

Memory also serves to describe and shape individuality. With Memory, we are endowed with the means of structuring who we are as individuals. The experiences of our life, dictated by the efficiency of our senses and emotions, are recorded, retrieved, and reordered through our Memory. Learning, a critical component of human individuality, is rooted in the cumulative function of Memory.

We experience the effects of Memory both as individuals, where memory is highly personal, and also as members of a larger group or society, where memory is more collective. The Memory Box of a society could be filled with oral histories, documents, literature, artifacts of traditions, letters, photographs, maps. These are all sources of information and knowledge that were experienced or acquired by some and shared with others, across time and distance. However, collections of data and information alone, are not the only markers of a society. Music, folklore, festivities and rituals, ethnic traditions, and stories are also part of the Memory Box. These are all markers of the social group, whether it be a PTA group, or a South Pacific tribe, or a nation. Such Memory markers are not merely sentimental collections, or hobbies of historians; they are the stuff with which the group, large or small, maintains its integrity and continuity. They ensure a continuum from person to person, from age to age, and, thus, represent the basic identity of the group.

What is this thing called Memory, that which we all possess, and that which still challenges scientists today?

In l650, Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") used his considerable brilliance to suggest that "When the mind wills to recall something, this volition causes the little gland (referring to the pineal gland), by inclining successively to different sides, to impel the animal spirits toward different parts of the brain, until they come upon that part where the traces are left of the thing which it wishes to remember...."

Although the pineal gland is not involved in memory, Descartes was correct in linking the brain to learning and, therefore, memory. Lashley in l9l7 attempted to unlock the secrets of memory with the concept of an engram, a physical and permanent trace of memory. He did not find it, but it did not deter others from continuing to look for it. Other researchers focussed their work on searching for evidence that memory is coded onto proteins or, at least, smaller molecular chains.

This led to one of the more commonly cited experiments involving planaria (flatworms) that were trained to turn away from light. The trained worms were cut up and fed to untrained worms who learned their task more quickly than another group of planarias who were neither fed nor trained. This result spurred on the thinking that memory must indeed be chemically linked. It was found later that while ribonucleic acid, or RNA, is found in higher levels in neurons after learning has occurred, it is not the only answer to how memory works.

A more popular theory suggests that memories become fixed in the nerve pathways through changes in the synapses or connections and the creation of new nerve networks. Even though the precise location of memory has not been found, if ever it will be, memory storage does occur in the cerebellum part of the brain.

In light of all this, consider how many aspects of holiday celebrations exist for individual or group memory. Which ones are deeply personal to you alone, or to your family, or your culture? Which ones are new and recent; which are steeped in the ages of the past that helped to shape your present? Which are artifices provided by an externally influencing society and which are the things born of your own encounters? Explore Memory!


Activity ideas:

l. Design and make a Memory Box as a gift. Fill it with things that mean something special to the recipient, or yourself. Write a Memory poem about the objects you have chosen.

2. As a family, make a collage to represent events, emotions, encounters, experiences that you have shared.

3. Make a Time Capsule for your own backyard or your school. Have everyone in your group decide what things are significant or representative of life now and try to project how someone in a future time might look backwards to today.

4. Embellish your photo albums with memory-evoking quotes from the folks in the pictures, or significant words that describe the moment.

Logos and Memories

Organizations all over the world utilize logotypes, or logos, to be their concise, visual symbolic representatives. Logos rely on the memory of the public to evoke positive images of the companies on products, stationery, signs, commercials, and advertisements.

When the Davis Science Center changed its name to Explorit Science Center it developed a logo to go along with its new name! In early discussions with the designer, Michael Payan, we used various words to describe the essence of the Center: dynamic, creative, process, movement, universal, integrative, interconnected. From those nebulous thoughts emerged the logo that appears below.


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