Cultural working memory

Individual animals can be thought of as having working memory, a system of temporary stores, and processes for manipulating them. But what about whole cultures? Is there a historical, cultural, analogue? Thinking of how knowledge doesn’t really accumulate accurately. You get the same sorts of gisting effects culturally as you do in individuals (I reckon, when in pub-chat mode). For instance details are omitted from textbook descriptions of studies in psychology—think of the effect on how people view the empirical data!

One thought on “Cultural working memory”

  1. Your question has a lot of room to move around in. Especially as the nature of “working memory” is only partially understood in individuals. It seems to me, however, that all large collections of beings (cells, human beings, etc.) that cooperate on a complex level (as a body or society) must have solved, on the level of natural/social evolution, similar problems in order to do so. One such problem must surely be how to bring the vast collection of individual units to accomplish tasks in unison. This, of course, includes simplifying the sum total of the collective knowledge/memory to only those components necessary in order to complete a task, the rest being inconvenient or even dangerous clutter.

    I can’t help but think of the news media as our social “working memory”. It consults long term memory only inasmuch as it is necessary in order to be functional at the task at hand, compares the information to our collective sensory data, in short term memory, and simplifies problems such that unified action is possible. Cameras are our collective eyes, news articles our collective thought process, the weather report our collective sensory experience of rain on the social skin, the video of jet ramming skyscrapers the signal to the more distant units that the body has sustained a dangerous wound, etc. The short term memory keeps the sensory data immediately available for weeks instead of seconds. The articles/commentary operate on the data. Exectutive areas of the collective brain (government) take immediate command.

    After the crisis has passed we learn that our knowledge of it had not “accumulated accurately”. But there is only so much time, in an enormously complex world, to put toward such considerations. We incorporate a few lessons, as best we can, and the rest is left to “gisting”.

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