Launched in 2017, the Otago Memory Group brings together researchers based at the University of Otago for informal discussion of interdisciplinary approaches to memory.

Contact: kourken.michaelian@otago.ac.nz


August 25, 4-5 p.m., BURN4. Harlene Hayne (Department of Psychology). Out of the mouths of babes: Memory development in infants and children.

"If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory…. We are, to be sure, a miracle in every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out." -- Jane Austen, Mansfield Park.

Like Jane Austen, my students and I are fascinated by the process of memory--the brain’s ability to store virtually endless amounts of information, retaining it so that we can retrieve, ponder, and use it hours, days, or even decades later. Unlike Jane Austen, however, we believe that scientists will eventually unlock some of the basic secrets to “our powers of recollecting and of forgetting.” Furthermore, we believe that one key to unlocking these secrets will emerge through systematic studies of memory development. For example, although acquiring our first words or taking our first steps was undoubtedly monumental at the time it occurred, we have no conscious recollection of our achievement of these milestones. In contrast, our memories of other important achievements that took place slightly later in development (e.g., our first day of school or the first time we rode a bike without training wheels) often survive the test of time and eventually form part of our autobiography. The conspicuous absence of memories for the early years of our lives is commonly referred to as childhood amnesia. For more than two decades my students and I have been studying childhood amnesia by examining memory development as it unfolds during infancy and early childhood. Using a number of different experimental procedures we have shown that for very young participants, memory retrieval is disrupted by even minor changes in the context or stimuli, limiting the accessibility of a given memory over time. Similarly, language development also plays an important role in childhood amnesia; children exhibit limited ability to translate their verbal memories into language as they learn to talk. Recently, we have also documented age-related changes in verbal and nonverbal episodic memory that reflect the emergence of long-term autobiographical memory during childhood. Taken together our research has addressed some important theoretical questions about the source of childhood amnesia. In addition, charting the course of memory development has helped us to understand children’s strengths and weaknesses when they must rely on their memory in educational, legal, and clinical settings.


July 28, 3-4, p.m., CASTB. Kourken Michaelian (Department of Philosophy). Collective memory: A philosophical perspective.

The concept of collective memory has currency both in the social sciences, in research focusing on how societies and other large-scale groups remember their pasts, and in psychology, in research on how married couples, parent-child dyads, and other small-scale groups remember events together. But how seriously should we take the concept? Is collective memory a mere metaphor? Or are (some) groups (sometimes) literally capable of remembering?


April 28, 3-4 p.m., CASTD. Evelyn Tribble (Department of English and Linguistics). Contagious Memory in Shakespeare.

Memory is a subject divided by a common vocabulary. For many cognitive psychologists, memory has been seen as an intra-cranial phenomenon, best studied in laboratory settings, where it can be tested in isolation from confounding factors. Researchers in the humanities and the arts, in contrast, often view memory as a social and collective phenomenon. Historians, anthropologists and cultural critics tend to be much more interested in the social and public aspects of memory, as embodied in, for example, in museums, monuments, and commemorative activities, or as collective traumas are repressed or expressed by public acts of memory. There is often little overlap between these two paradigms for studying memory. For example, the cognitive-science oriented Oxford Handbook of Memory does not discuss social or collective memory at all; in turn, the historical-philosophical oriented collection Theories of Memory: A Reader ignores cognitive science completely. This essay is a preliminary foray into bringing these two methods into dialogue with one another, using Romeo and Juliet as a test case. I propose to first examine internal dynamics of remembering and forgetting in the play, particularly the technique of retrospective story-telling, as characters attempt to shape and reshape memories for events that have just occurred. I argue that these dynamics – particularly the tendency to shape complex, contingent, and accidental events into binary categories that are more easily remembered – in turn affects that way that the play is received – how it is culturally (mis)remembered


March 31, 4-5 p.m., CASTD. Elaine Reese (Department of Psychology). Origins of Autobiography: The development of memory and life stories.

Professor Reese will present the results of two longitudinal studies of autobiographical memory development with Dunedin children from age 1 to 16 years. These studies have focused on the development of episodic memory in early childhood and adolescence, and on the emergence of autobiographical reasoning in adolescence.