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Culture Mediates Our Memory

Updated: Jul 17, 2020


In mid-June 2008, my time in Hong Kong was nearly spent. So, I sat down for my last haircut at the Black barber shop in Kowloon Tong. My barber, Channel, was from Congo; “the little one” as he put it, meaning the Republic of Congo. During my time in Hong Kong, this closet of a shop was a cultural oasis; a brief escape from my minority status. We had race, but not much culture in common. Nonetheless, the shared intimate understanding over the flavor of attention our skin could bring was enough to keep us meaningfully bonded for a few moments. Weeks from that cut, I would return home to Alabama, then move to California for graduate school.


Three or four years into graduate school, while laying the groundwork for my dissertation, I stumbled on an academically beautiful description of the cognitive roots of culture written by cultural linguist Dr. Farzad Sharifian. In short, you can think of culture as a library of related practices, perspectives and ideations that are essentially the accumulation of processed interactions between cultural members and the physical/social environment. The meaning that is extracted from those interactions and ideations is shared across generations and, in some cases, undergoes some level of reinterpretation or updating for the current cultural ethos. This process builds a collection of culturally associated cognitive structures – that Dr. Sharifian calls cultural conceptualizations – that are distributed in varying degrees across cultural members and are iteratively appraised for their relevance. These cultural conceptualizations matter, because they act as a mental advisor for how we should proceed from moment to moment.

Quick Stop on the Cali Coast - Nov 2008

During my early teen years, my family lived in an apartment complex a few minutes south of Birmingham, Alabama in a commuter suburb called Homewood. One afternoon, for reasons now forgotten, I decided to walk to the nearby Piggly Wiggly grocery store. As I approached the side of the grocery store, a White woman was exiting her car. Upon noticing me, she suddenly re-entered her car, closed the door and just sat there. I immediately interpreted her behavior as a racist gesture. I went about my business and did not linger in the area. In April of 2008, I was making my way through a train station in Nanjing, China. I was with a few other Americans, but I was the only Black male, to the best of my memory, walking through the station. A female security agent was watching over all of us, but took a second glance at me. She waved me over to the side to take a look at my passport. Two British men behind me witnessed the extra attention I received and immediately commented to themselves, “well that’s racial profiling isn’t it.” Again, I immediately interpreted the event as racially tinged, especially in light of this not being the first time that year I had gotten extra care at a Chinese airport or train station. My immediate reading of these events was rooted in my knowledge of plausible experiences in which those of my heritage may be thrown. Culture constitutes, in part, how reality is construed therein coloring how we remember our past experiences. However, what is interesting, at least to me as a cognitive psychologist, is that my interpretation of both events could be completely mistaken. The way I have described the encounters is dependent on me being accurate about the other person’s intentions. For instance, what if the woman that I thought was exiting her car was actually entering her car when we noticed one another? Or, what if she was reentering the car for a reason unrelated to my passing? As for my experience in the Nanjing station, maybe it was my dashing smile (doubtful) or my distinctiveness from other passengers that made the security woman curious about my country of origin. Perhaps, she thought I was Lebron James and found disappointment upon reading my passport. Sometimes, the reasons for an experience are clear. Other times, encounters are ambiguous and that is when cognitive structures that inform our expectations “help” to bring clarity. What is thought-provoking is that if these events happened to a White-American, he/she may not even consider a racial interpretation of the event as a plausible option; thus, it would not even come to mind as an explanation for the encounter. Culture, along with individual experiences, builds our expectations of events, influences what we extract and encode from the event, therein impacting how we remember the event.

Yet, it was not childhood experiences, but a fascinating experiment that forever fastened my academic interest to how culture mediates memory. During the year I entered graduate school, Dr. Qi Wang published an article titled Being American, being Asian: The bicultural self and autobiographical memory in Asian-Americans. Research on differences between East Asians and White westerners in autobiographical memory content has exposed a common distinction; East Asian memory reports tend to focus more on social interactions and behaviors of the group, while memory reports of White westerners tend to focus on their own actions and thoughts. This difference has been found in children as well as adults. Dr. Wang proposed that Asian-Americans who cognitively developed within both Asian and American cultural traditions may have also acquired both ways to describe their personal past. Often in the literature, Asian-Americans and Latino-Americans are described as bicultural – individuals who have developed within two distinct cultural settings – because they experience clear dissimilarities between their Asian (or Latino) identity and their American identity (Wang, 2008; Devos, 2006; and Benet-Martinez & Haritatos, 2005). This distinction is not a simple feeling or surprise results from ancestry.com; it suggests two different networks of cognitive structures that mentally represent Asian culture and American culture. In her experiment, she asked Asian-American college students to report a couple of detailed autobiographical memories. However, before recalling the past events, some participants were randomly primed to think about either their American identity or Asian identity and others were not primed at all to act as a control group. The hope was that the priming would tap into cognitive structures associated with the respective cultural identities and affect what or how memories were recalled. Dr. Wang found that the two primed groups differed noticeable in the general focus of their memory content. More specifically, reported memories of Asian-Americans primed as Asian contained more mentions of social interactions (e.g., my sister and I visited a park) and group actions (e.g., we traveled to another state) than those primed as American and those not primed at all. In contrast, the reported memories of Asian-Americans primed as American contained more mentions of the participant’s own actions and thoughts (e.g., I was overjoyed) than those primed as Asian and those not primed at all. Notice that for those not primed, the degree that their memory content focused on social interactions or personal agency teetered in between the prime conditions as if waiting for the context to push their behavior more in one cultural direction than the other. I was so struck by the paper that eleven years later I would publish a conceptual replication of her findings with two of my former research assistants titled, Biculturals' flexible identity facilitates variation in the retrieval of autobiographical memories: An online replication of Wang 2008. Furthermore, it cemented my interest in researching the minds of bicultural individuals to gain insight into how culture mediates memory.

In my first post, I described how parents inculcate children with the manner in which to tell a personal story and therein how to narrate their life. I glossed over something that has been alluded to here. The adults feeding into a child’s development are products of a personal past, of a culture. Autobiographical memory emerges from several developments, one of which is the ability to converse with adults in social interactions that are purposefully and inadvertently rooted in a cultural context (See Wang, 2016; Wang, 2011; and Nelson & Fivush, 2004). Thus, culture is baked into what moments you and I consider worthy of our personal narratives. Furthermore, culture impresses on us how the details of those moments should be framed on the walls of our consciousness and in the public galleries for sharing. Consequently, cognitive remnants of culture influence how we place ourselves in the present, remember the past and, to some degree, how we imagine our futures.

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