Is there a reason why rituals for remembering the departed are the way they are? Why do we remember the details about other people that we do, and why do these memories fade and distort over time? How does forgetting help us remember? Dr. Azi Grysman, a researcher on memory, takes what he has learned about how the brain works and applies it to an understanding of Jewish ritual, in hopes of discovering how such traditions have remained strong over time.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. As part of the program, Dr. Azi Grysman led a series of talks and classes on this topic at B’nai Israel Congregation in Baltimore, MD, bringing a Jewish perspective to the science of memory. This session was recorded on March 15, 2021).
So the topic is titled “Yizkor, Passover and Autobiographical Memory.” And I wanted to just say, at the outset, there’s going to be more of a focus here on on Yizkor than there is on Passover itself, and I wanted to just ground the approach here. We’ve been talking throughout different sessions about how memory is a distributed process – it’s distributed throughout the brain, it’s not stored in one particular location, it’s not like reaching back into a file cabinet, but instead, memories are spread throughout the brain, connecting in different ways to each other. And I wanted to get into that in a little bit more in detail in today’s class, to look specifically at the way our memories can be organized, and how that’s going to become important when we think about something like the process of Yizkor or remembering a loved one.
So I wanted to just give a brief outline of what we’re going to try to go through today. Number one, what does it mean for memory to be a network? Number two, certain efficiency processes that change our memories. And we’re going to look at one specifically called retrieval-induced forgetting. And third one, we’re going to look at a process known as reconsolidation, the ways that our memories change when we think about them.
And so let’s get started by looking first at what it means for memory to be a network. And I want you to just consider all of the things, for lack of a better technical term, that you know. So try to think about it – the brain has billions and billions of neurons of brain cells devoted to your everyday functioning, but everything that has to also be stored in there somewhere. And I’m willing to bet that everybody on this call knows more than a billion things. And it gets to the question of how we store everything, right.
So imagine all the things you know about language, all the vocabulary that you have, all the rules of language that you know. Maybe you speak more than one language. Think about names and faces of every person you are familiar with or know in your life, right. So every family member, every friend, every teacher, every celebrity, every person you read about in the news. Think about directions, right, the streets in your neighborhood that you know. Think about your knowledge of how to use a phone, how to use a computer, all of these things have to be stored in different ways in the brain. And we get into what’s called “combinatorial explosion,” right, the explosion of combinations, if we try to envision one brain cell for every single task that we do, or every single thing that we know. It would simply be too much.
And so we need to think of ways that the same infrastructure, right, the same brain cells, can be used for multiple things. And when it comes to knowledge, that’s where we get into thinking of memory as a network. So when I use the phrase “knowledge,” I am using it to mean anything that you know is a memory, right, whether it’s a memory of when you learned it or how you learned it, or how you do it. In all of those cases, for the purpose of today’s talk, we’re going to refer to those things as “knowledge.” We can get to finer distinctions within memory, but we’re not going to do that today.
And so, given the finite nature of the brain, we often draw an analogy from the brain to a computer. And it’s an analogy that started in the 50s and 60s, and is becoming more and more accurate in terms of our knowledge of the brain, [which] is increasing as we learn more about computers. And our knowledge of what computers can do is increasing as we learn more about the brain. There’s a very nice synergy between them. And the earliest models of memory really track the earliest models of computers, because the scientists were thinking that “If we can train a computer to do it, then maybe that would somehow reflect something along the lines of what the mind does.” And there’s been a lot of success. We’re certainly not there yet, but there have been a lot of small successes, in terms of modeling different things that the brain can do.
So what does it mean for the brain, for memory, to be stored in a network? It means that cells in the brain that are used for one process are simultaneously used for another process. And so instead of having a cell that represents celery, and a cell that represents lettuce, and a cell that represents cucumbers, you might have a cell that represents “green vegetables.” And anytime you think about a green vegetable, that cell gets activated. Well, now that cell is being used for dozens of different objects. And you’ve expanded the capacity of what you can use your brain for by using one cell for many, many things at once. And so your mental representation of “celery,” instead of being one brain cell, right, which you might think is efficient – actually, the concept of celery is going to be made up of hundreds of brain cells. Which might seem to you inefficient, but those same hundreds of brain cells will store thousands of concepts, and it’s just about different patterns within those brain cells that lead us into that representation.
I want to get to a practical example without getting too technical here. So I thought that I would give the example of my memory of my grandfather. Before I do that, just emphasize that the reason that we think of memory as associative, or, right, I think of something and it draws an association to something similar – well, the underlying theory behind that is that there is overlapping infrastructure, right, overlapping brain cells that store similar things. And so when you think of one thing, it makes you think of something similar.
So let me get to an example here. So we’re thinking about the topic of Yizkor, and I’m particularly thinking about my Zaida, my grandfather who passed a couple of years ago. And I have a representation of him as a person. I actually have a cell in my brain that’s likely devoted to his face, specifically. This might be one of the exceptions where there might be one cell for one face. Not 100% clear, but my representation of my grandfather is going to have many different expressions, so I might think of his ears and eyes, which were some of his distinctive characteristic facial features, right. He had very blue eyes. I might think of his demeanor, right, and how he had a certain sense of propriety that that, you know, stuck out in my family. I might think of his professional life or his volunteer work, which was connected, because he was an accountant and ended up doing finances for a lot of Jewish nonprofit organizations. I might think of the way he dressed, right, how he wore suits and ties. And he was very particular about his suits and ties, but also his housecoat that he wore around the house. I might think about other, kind of more leisure or personal, interests and activities, whether those are my memories of preparing for Pesach with him, or going to a show with him, or watching sports with him, or playing baseball with him. I might think of other things that define his personality, like him being this “Up by his bootstraps” type of person, or somebody who liked to work with his hands. So he gardened and he made wine and he made pickles, and he was very handy around the house. And he was a very big proponent of a certain work ethic. And so all of these things are going to get activated in my mind when i think of my grandfather.
So these are all different characteristics, or different traits, that I would associate with my grandfather, and all of these different traits are going to have other associations in my mind. And so the consequence of a network of representation is that, when we think about that person, that we’re thinking about in the Yizkor experience, we’re not just thinking about them. Or really, that the act of thinking about them is activating this diverse and expansive network of the things that we associate with them of everything they stood for, and characteristics, character traits, hobbies, things that we remember them for. And so I would even go as far as saying is that this part of your brain is caused by them, right. And this is more of a specific philosophical point that I’m not going to get into, but would be happy to debate about what it is that your representation of this person is in the physical world.
And so when you go through the Yizkor experience, in my opinion, you are activating the knowledge in your brain and the physical parts of your brain that represent that person. And so that is one instantiation of that person in the real material world, and that this network that represents this person connects to other knowledge in the brain, right. So your knowledge should have, to sort of come back to the example that I had, so I might think of my grandfather in terms of “making,” because he made his own wine. And that’s going to make me think about other knowledge that I have about wine. So it might highlight a memory of going on a winery tour in the Golan, or thinking about different names of wines that I’m familiar with, though his wine was probably not this caliber. So I might think about pickling, and half sours, and full sours, and things that I know about growing cucumbers and pickles. I might think about his profession, so I might think about accountants and actuaries and be reminded that my taxes are due soon. And there’s all kinds of associations that i might make when thinking about my grandfather.
Now, [there is] this notion of an associative network, right, that when we think of a person, this person has kind of vast associations in our lives. So we can take this a step further and say, “Well, it’s not just about them, it’s about you,” right. It’s about our own experiences with that person, or even our own self-definition. So we have people who are very close to us, who are central to our sense of who we are, right. So our sense of who we are might have a strong reference to certain important people in our lives, family members, teachers, etc. And so when this person, right – when we are constantly referencing knowledge, we constantly connect it to that loved one. But over time, after a person passes, some of those memories are going to get replaced. Some of them are going to fade over time. Maybe we’re not going to think about that person as often, because we’re not talking to them, we’re not seeing them, we’re not taking care of them, we’re not having those conversations. And so the representation of that other person becomes less and less accessible.
And so the the first process that I want to emphasize here is that the memory is subject to simple fading. Simply, just as our memory of the person fades as we have fewer new memories about that person, the memory gets weaker and weaker, and Yizkor, to us, to an extent, is combating this process. But I want to talk about a second process before I really look specifically at that. So we’re talking about memory here as a network. The network means that different parts of the mind or the brain are being accessed when thinking about a person, and that creates all kinds of associations in our minds, and that those associations fade as that person is less – if we’re less around that person.
So process #2 is more of an active process. So if process #1 was about simple fading, right, simply “Memories are farther away, they become less accessible,” which I think is something that you don’t need to be a memory scientist to appreciate that process. #2 has a greater emphasis on the actual limits to our storage capacity. And so if we are using this overlapping infrastructure, these same cells, to represent similar concepts, then at some point we might run into problems if the same infrastructure is going to be representing two different concepts, and which one is going to pop into our minds?
And so there’s a process, right. This is going to get pretty crowded, and forgetting is actually an important part of memory, right. It’s very important that we remember the information that is most useful, and that we forget the information that isn’t useful. And because there isn’t a little “me” inside my head deciding which memories I want to keep and putting them in a scrapbook, and which memories would be more efficient to get rid of, we have processes designed to take the most current information and prioritize it.
And so I’ll give you an example. An example is finding your car in the parking lot, right. Think of [how] we work in different places. Imagine you drive somewhere on a regular basis, whether it’s your work, whether it’s a mall or something, and you’re parking your car in the same parking lot. You have in your mind many memories of parking in that same lot, and it’s likely not in the same spot every time, and so how do you keep that straight? How do you remember after two hours in the shopping mall, or after a full day of work, where your car is? Because much as we grumble or joke about how we can’t find our car, it’s actually pretty amazing how often we do find our cars, and how little difficulty we actually have, given that when you walk out into that parking lot, there is nothing that distinguishes that day of parking there from any other time in your life that you’ve parked there. So how on earth do we keep that straight?
And so the process of retrieval-induced forgetting is a process that is hypothesized, that states that when we encounter something similar to a previous experience, if we interpret them as being the same, we then forget the earlier experience and update it with the new experience. So if there’s information like this that we need to keep track of, we use the underlying rule of “The more current information is likely the more accurate information.”
If events or experiences are unique enough then we won’t get them confused – so if you go to a baseball game and you watch you watch the Orioles win the World Series, you’re not going to forget about that, because you go watch them lose in an exhibition game the next time around. But to the extent that things are similar, we will forget experiences, or we’ll push them down in memory and say, “Well that representation isn’t really being used anymore, we are now using this more current representation.”
And so this process of forgetting, of fading, of retrieval-induced forgetting, these are ways that keep the brain efficient, right. So I want to be clear that the brain is massive, right. We have billions of neurons, trillions of connections between our cells. Your average neuron connects to somewhere between a hundred and a thousand other neurons. But still we are limited in our capacity. We can’t do everything. And the brain needs to maintain efficiency, because it’s not only how much we do but it’s how quickly we do it, right. We need to be able to respond quickly and to act in a real-time environment. And so unfortunately, what this means is that older memories get pushed to the background. And if they are older memories of a loved one, with whom we’re not making new memories, that means that those memories of those individuals are going to fade to the background – [to a] different degree for different people, but we are going to be thinking of this person less and less.
And I believe that Yizkor is about fighting this process, it’s about keeping that person alive in our memories, and saying that there is this memory process that’s going on, this natural process, something we don’t need to feel bad about, but there’s a natural process that is going to lead our memories of that close relative, of that loved individual, that’s going to make them fade more and more and be less and less accessible.
I actually had an interesting talk with my dad this year, who’s on the call. And he told me around Simchat Torah – so because of COVID, there was somebody who he saw every single year on Simchat Torah, who would talk to him about his father, right. So my other Zaida, not the one who I gave the example of, was somebody who used to come to Toronto. He was very active, he used to go down to the local Chabad and lead them out into the streets carrying the Sefer Torah. And there was somebody who always would talk to my dad about his father on Simchat Torah, and he said he felt this surge of guilt after Simchat Torah when he said, “Wow, I didn’t think of my father today on Simchat Torah, and this is the first time it’s happened.”
And so the the ritual of Yizkor and Yahrzeit makes us, or gets us, or encourages us, to take commemorative action to spend a few minutes, right. The Yizkor prayer isn’t a grand show from the khazan like a lot of our T’filot; the Yizkor prayer is much more muted, right. There’s an introduction, and then there’s your own private t’filah, and it’s your time, and you are meant to be thinking about that loved one and really engaging with that memory of them. So when we engage in these rituals, what we are doing is we are strengthening the cells in our brains that represent these people. We are reactivating the parts of the brain – the brain has a very simple principle, it’s called “Use it or lose it,” right. The brain gets rid of elements, aspects, that aren’t used. It stops devoting resources to them and devotes its resource to what’s more current.
And so what Yizkor does is it, you know, four or five times a year, if you’re going to observe a Yahrzeit, it says, “Hey, this is current information,” right. “Keep this, this is important.” And by activating those memories, we give a certain biological instantiation to those people in our lives. And that is something that keeps us grounded in a sense of family and a sense of history, and in the relationships that are important to us, into who we are.
Azi, I guess I would ask one question. I guess back in your previous slide, when you talked about it, your slide said your self-identification – maybe you addressed it, and I missed some of it. Could you kind of summarize how your self-identification affects this process?
Azi Grysman: Sure. So if our memories are associative, right, we have things – how we represent somebody else, can have all the different aspects of their life that we represent about them, there’s going to be a certain amount of overlap between our representation of them and us, either in terms of pivotal experiences that we’ve had with these people that have shaped us, or things that we see in ourselves, right, like a genetic thing that’s similar between you and your parents. So you think of similarities. Or if it’s family history and stories that we’ve heard from our parents, that contributes to our sense of, kind of, who we are located in this broader nexus of things, in this family history.
Etan Mintz: Azi, is there any evidence that a year or month, depending, strengthens memory, versus those who don’t? I’m not sure if I got the question, exactly.
Azi Grysman: Is the question about a significance of like – a year has a certain significance in memory, or a month having a certain significance in memory, making the link to the cycle of mourning?
Etan Mintz: Oh, I guess that’s what it is. It sounds like it, it must be that.
Azi Grysman: So I would say that not from a brain-biology –
Etan Mintz: Yeah, in terms of saying Kaddish also, right.
Azi Grysman: So one of the biggest significances of a year is more social rather than from a brain point of view, which is just that you go through the full cycle of the year, and you have all these experiences that could link to this person. And those all serve as reminders. So that’s less about brain biology per se than it is about how a year affects our experiences. And I think that’s probably a very similar notion underlying why Kaddish is a year, and why the notion of the Yahrzeit.
Right now, in terms of the brain, it seems as though when it comes to forming memories, a couple weeks out seems to be an important milestone. And then somewhere between six months and two years seems to be an important milestone. And they’re not there yet in terms of narrowing down more specifically.
I’m thinking of a study that has brought people back over certain intervals and shown how – put them in brain scanners while they’re recalling certain things and showing processes within the hippocampus that change over the course of a few weeks, and over the course of a few years. But we don’t have the kind of precision to say, “One year is an important landmark.” We, right now, know of this as more of a gradual process, that by a couple years, by about two years out, we know your brain has gone through most of the, kind of – call it “fossilizing”, almost, of becoming more static and less and alive and open to change.
Etan Mintz: And the follow-up, that he asks, is regarding emotions. What about emotions? If your loved one passed while you’re good or bad terms with them, how much do emotions impact that memory?
Azi Grysman: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t know about emotions at the time of passing – I imagine that the emotional connection to a loved one is going to be far deeper than that, and so people might have a certain experience surrounding – you know, sometimes you have people with this experience of, “Oh my god, the last thing that happened was we had a fight,” or they feel this great sense of comfort because of what they were able to say to them towards the end. I don’t know if those things influence the memories long-term, because the things about emotion and memory in the literature are more about single-event experiences, where a highly emotional single experience could influence your memory in a certain way. But when a loved one passes away, we’re not talking about a single experience, we’re talking about a lifetime of experiences. And so I’m not sure how the specifics of one later memory might impact things.
I have a quick question. So I wanted to know what you think about grief dreams, or dreams of loved ones who’ve passed away. I have been reading a lot about this, and I’ve got my mayor’s thing on I’m also just here as a Yid. But having, yeah, reading a lot about about grief dreams and processing and the different energies around them. My family and I often talk about dreams that we have of our family members in the other world, around – you know, of course, around Pesach or on holidays, that association. I have a rabbi that talks about the significance of your Kol-Nidre-night dreams, and all that type of stuff, and there’s a biological and psychological, and then also spiritual component, to it. I would love to know your thoughts on all of those, and I will just say I was really blessed that last night, actually, I had a dream of my aunt and my great-aunt, and especially the aunt. They both are our nifter (have passed away) but my mother and sister, we would always have have Pesach by her and everything. And it was like almost like a lucid dream. I knew it was a dream, and I was able to give her a hug and to smell her and all of that. And so that’s why I’m asking.
Azi Grysman: Yeah, thanks for that question. As a cognitive psychologist, I imagine you’re going to be thoroughly dissatisfied with what I have to say about dreaming, I don’t have a particular approach to dreaming. But you know, from a cognitive point of view, we look at what happens in dreams as the way information is organized. So i can’t tell you why you would have a certain dream or what that dream means, but what i could say is that we’ve got part of our mental capacity, which is about trying to make sense out of what’s going on inside of us. And so when we have a dream, it is often a representation of lots of different common concerns or current concerns. So you’re having dreams about about family members around Pesach time, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think that’s because you’re thinking about Pesach. And that’s, again, through these associations, that’s connecting to these people who are so closely associated to Pesach for you. And the smell, right, you might have a strong association with a certain smell with those people. And those things can all come together during a dream as your memories are being brought to consciousness.
Now, the reason I say that that’s dissatisfying is because it doesn’t really explain why. It doesn’t really explain “Why this dream,” or “What’s the significance of this dream,” and “Why did you dream about this loved one and not that loved one,” or “Why did you dream about it today and not another day.” And I don’t find deep insights in dreams, because what I think they tell us is about what we are thinking, which – that can be insightful, and my experience talking to people about dreaming has given me the suggestion that I don’t have as powerful dreams as other people do. But I do think that there’s something to the the associations. So it could be that something that happened on a given day raised this awareness of this person in your mind, but did so in a kind of under-the-radar way, that it only really made its way into your consciousness during a dream. But I don’t know more about how we get from point A to Z.
The third process I wanted to discuss was about reactivating memories, and the terminology that we use for that is called “consolidation.” And it’s meant to talk about how memories become more compact over time. And in a sense, right, that fades our memories. So memories become less dependent on the hippocampus, which we talked about in our first session. It’s a small part, deep inside your brain, that is very important for memory storage and memory formation. But over time, our memories become independent of the hippocampus. So when we first commit something to memory, it’s going to be highly active in terms of the hippocampus communicating with other parts of the brain. And eventually, the rest of the parts of the brain where the memory is going to be stored are going to detach from the hippocampus, and they are going to be now independent of the hippocampus, right. The hippocampus is a busy part of the brain, we need it for other things, and so we can’t devote the energy from the hippocampus to keep all of our memories that fresh and that current. So over time, they fade, and that fading goes along with detaching from the hippocampus.
Now there’s an experiment that happened in the year 2000 that showed, that introduced, this terminology called “reconsolidation.” It says our memories, after they have occurred, can go through this process of consolidation a second time. And so we can bring a memory to mind after it has happened, readjust our thinking about it, and change what we thought happened. And so I’m going to show you a little schematic of this experiment, and I’ll ask you to just bear with me for a couple minutes. Try to keep up with this, and if you can’t, don’t worry about the details. But it’s a memory about rats, and it’s a three-condition memory. So the rats in each of the three conditions are getting a different pattern – they’re getting shocked. So my apologies if anybody is sensitive or squeamish about that, but it’s common practice in the research world. And so they’ve introduced an injection of what’s called anisomycin, and that is a protein inhibitor. So it prevents the rat from growing proteins or creating proteins. And effectively, for our purposes, what that does is it prevents memory from occurring.
Now, one of the most basic things that you know, if you’ve taken an introductory course in psychology, is that if you shock a rat under a certain cue, if the rat thinks it’s in that position again, it will freeze. And we interpret that to mean that it’s expecting another shock. And so condition 1 is the very, very baseline. They shock a rat while they play a distinctive tone, and then they inject the rat at the same time or right before with this anisomycin. And then two days later, when they play that tone, the rat doesn’t freeze, right. So the rat would normally freeze, but they play the tone and the rat doesn’t freeze, which is a an indication that the anisomycin worked it – worked to prevent memory formation in the rat.
Now condition 2 is to prove that anisomycin is not this like “I’ll out block everything in your memories,” so it’s not like a night of hard drinking, where, you know, you black out, you don’t remember what happened the day before. So what they do is on day 1, they pair the same tone with the shock. On day 2, they inject the rat with anisomycin. And on day three, they play the tone. And now the rat freezes, because two days earlier that tone came with a shock. And so the rat is showing here that two days later, despite being injected with anisomycin, in between, in the interim, the rat remembers the initial experience.
And so now we get to the pivotal condition, condition 3, where on day 1, again, the rat hears a tone and is shocked, on day 2 the rat hears a tone again, and instead of getting shocked, it gets anisomycin. So it gets the injection on day two. So instead of the second condition, where the rat just got the injection on day two. Now on day two, the rat gets the injection. And it also gets a reminder, right, it hears that tone – “Hey remember what happened last time this tone was played?” That’s what the rat is getting alongside anisomycin. And on day three, the rat doesn’t respond to the tone.
So in other words, we know that the protein inhibitor anisomycin blocks memory while an event is being experienced. And we know that if a day after the event is experienced, the anisomycin doesn’t affect the memory. But if you’re thinking about that memory, if the rat is reminded of the initial experience on day two, the anisomycin will come in and block its original memory. In other words, this drug injection will go back in time and knock out a memory, but only if the rat is made aware of that memory. So bringing something to mind, right, thinking about a memory, opens that memory up to the possibility of change.
Okay, so just to make sure we’re clear, what we’re showing here is that anisomycin on its own can prevent you from remembering an experience during the injection, but it can also prevent you from remembering an experience that you were thinking about during the injection. And so the question then becomes “Can we apply these findings to human beings,” right? Because generally – don’t be dismayed – but our brains are rather similar to rat brains. They’re some of our closest living relatives, and especially the hippocampus is very similar from our brains to rat brains. Some of the more advanced stuff, you have to look in chimpanzees to get, or other apes, to get a better view, but the question now becomes “Can we apply this finding to human beings?” And we can’t really go around sticking human beings with protein inhibitors, it just doesn’t really work that way from an ethical point of view.
So let’s take a look at some research – actually some of the lead researchers in this field are in the Weizmann Institute in Israel, and they published this paper in 2011 in Science, right, one of the most prestigious scientific journals out there. And let’s walk through what they did with human beings here. So people would watch a video in a group of five, and then the the honest truth is that I’m not sure if only one of these five people was actually part of the experiment, or if they just took all five people separately and they quiz them on it individually. They quiz them on the video on day on three days later, seven days later, and 14 days later. So three days later, they just want to know what people remember. Seven days later, they start to introduce incorrect – so the experimenters give them false information with the pictures of the four people who were there. So they asked them a question about what they saw in the video, and they showed them a photo of the other four people next to a quote of what they said. And they do this strategically, so that in some circumstances they’re introducing false information about what happened and the impression that it came from those other four people that were in the experiment.
So before we get to test 3, there’s two different streams that false information can take, right. So let’s say on test 2, right, on day 7, they accept and they go along with the crowd on that piece of information, right. They say the wrong thing, like the four other people, so to speak, said, they could revert back to their original answer a week later, or they could stick with the group. A week later, when they’re no longer being pressured, nobody’s reminding them, “Hey, these other four people said this,” and they find that that people do both, and that there’s a different thing going on in the brain when they stick with the group, and when they don’t stick with the group.
And so what they found was when that information that they accepted from other people, when it stuck with them from day 7 to day 14, there’s a certain connection in the brain from the amygdala to the hippocampus. So the amygdala is known as an emotion processing area of the brain, but it also has been associated with certain social processes. So it’s not surprising, or at least we can make sense of this, that there’s a certain pathway in these two regions of the brain that is active only when they take information, false information, from other people, right.
They ran another condition where they gave them the same false information, but said it came from a computer, and we don’t see this same pathway. We see this pathway in the brain when they’re accepting false information from other people, and that seven days later, they have still accepted that information. And that part of the brain, that amygdala, that pathway, is only activated when there are social influences on memory. And so I wanted to kind of open up this question and ask what this means for the power the importance of communal rituals, right, because i think what it’s showing us is a real value to not just how memory can change, but how memory can change from social influences, and how we have evolved to accept memories from social influence.
So three steps here in this process: number one, our memories can change after the fact. Number two, it’s not just peer pressure, right. It persists for a week. Number two, we can identify a part of the brain that is dedicated specifically to this memory change. And number three, that memory change, that pathway, is specific to social influence. And so it’s not only that our memories change, but it’s that our memories have probably adapted to change this way to take information from other people and to incorporate it into our own memories, to treat it as if we experienced it. And so if we bring this back now to the Yizkor concept, to the concept of, “Well, now I’m reactivating this memory of this person – I lived in a dynamic relationship with this person for as long as they were in my life, and now they’re gone, I’m saying Yizkor for them.”
But I have changed, right – I walk into Yizkor a changed person. And I bring that dynamism in with me. I reactivate memories, I keep those memories alive, in such a way that I’m constantly changing, and my interaction with this person who’s no longer with us can keep changing in a very real, live way, because of how those memories are open to change when they’ve been reactivated, right. So we can engage even if the people we’ve lost aren’t changing, right, we’re changing and we can maintain that relationship in a certain level as we ourselves change.
So I wanted to kind of pause there, and we can, if we have a few minutes at the end, we can talk about about Seder Night and the Haggadah, but I wanted to just pause there and take any questions about reconsolidation, or the Yizkor process, or anything along those lines.
I guess I could elaborate a little bit on what Miriam is saying. I think this is a very poignant observation, right, that if you surround yourself with people who lie, then you open yourself up to that influence, right – that being in a framework where people are saying something can, if you let your guard down, it can allow the falsehood to come in. And that you may not be aware of those potential influences on you.
Etan Mintz: Very much so. Pirkei Avot says.
I’d like to ask Azi one question, if I may.
Azi Grysman: Of course.
Just what I find fascinating is that things change due to social circumstances, and it even opens up a new neuron. And I’m wondering to what extent that relates to communal prayer – creating a certain reality. And that sometimes the group social reality may actually be something that the brain craves for, is more significant, and represents a truth that’s slightly different than the individual truth we have. And that, you know, I’m thinking about it also in terms of, I would say, even the lethal dependence some people place towards minyanim in these days, and how it could relate to the craving for a certain certain social reality. So I thought if you wanted to comment about that, doctor, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.
Azi Grysman: So I certainly agree with the notion, I think that the social impulse, or that craving, as you as you phrase it, is very real. I think that we are social creatures, we’re highly dependent on our social worlds, and you know, I think that what a lot of people have been experiencing in the last year, you know, minyan is one example, but a loss of so many different social outlets. I think that when you get into a social reality, you start to get very esoteric in a way that I find exciting, but also hard to keep track of. So we could talk about some kind of shared representation that all members of the group have, and we can talk about the group existing as independent of any of the individuals who contribute to it, and so I think you’re getting more at the second. And I think that that is a very hard concept to talk about, at least in scientific terms, right, because you have the reality that is housed in all these individuals, but, you know, it requires more than the sum, more than each individual. It’s independent of the individuals. And so it gets kind of really complicated really fast, but also, I think, really exciting.
And I think that the fact that we have all this mental infrastructure that’s there to take meaning from the group, take information from the group, is just a testament to how group-dependent we are, and how real that social influence is. You know, I have students in my classes who say something like, “So, professor, you’re saying that this is – you know, all of these factors are a social construction, which means that they’re not real.” And I’ll say to them, “What’s more real than a social construction?” And that we are hardwired to readily take on the influence of our social environments.
And this is one great example of it, right – that we have a particular pathway in the brain that is dedicated towards updating our memories based on what other people have told us happened.
So I could just add one thing, it would be fascinating to see how concept like this relates to the mitzvah of Kidoshim T’hiyu, which is phrased in the plural specifically to tell us that we only discovered Kedusha in a social milieu. So anyway, it’s a thought. I don’t know if you have anything to say about it, but it’s a thought.
Etan Mintz: Any practical ways for people to sort of use what you’re sharing to get where they want to go, and to be able to remember the way they want to remember, whether it’s on Pesach, whether on Yizkor, whether in their own ways that they activate their memory? Rather than it being a passive experience, I’m wondering if you could use this knowledge to have to have a more powerful Yizkor experience, to have a more powerful Pesach experience. And any thoughts on how to do that? And if that is an appropriate thing to do, is that something that is something that is a meaningful thing to do?
Azi Grysman: Yeah, so I guess my first comment is that I don’t want to have the chutzpah to say that I know what it’s like to be a person who says Yizkor on a regular basis. You know, I am an Ashkenazi, my custom is to not be inside shul for Yizkor, but as a khazan who’s gone to many different places, I have been inside shul on Yizkor on occasion, and I spend time thinking about my grandparents when I’m in those scenarios. So I don’t have that same first-person experience. So I’ll just kind of preface with that. But I will say that […] for some people, to think about your loved one, you don’t need any other purpose to imbue that with – nothing else is required. That experience is powerful enough.
But I do think that, to have a sense of when a person goes into that, when a person goes into that Yizkor experience, and says those T’filot and thinks about that person, I would encourage people to think about who it is that you are, and how that other person contributes to who you are, and how your memories of that person – to think about those very visceral characteristics, like somebody mentioned the smell of a person, right. I have certain family members whose perfume, I can recognize it on the streets anywhere, right. So if you have that kind of visceral connection, to think about the visual imagery of being in their home, or how they used to dress, or just certain activities, to spend a few minutes trying to just focus on those particular experiences, I think would be a way to be more powerfully reactivating those memories. I’m not suggesting any magic is going to happen, that any great change is going to happen – you know, it’s a far cry from inducing people to remember something that happened in a video, to taking this and making it personal – but I do think that for the person who wants to think of it in those terms, there’s a lot of applications that could be made. And so, to have a conversation with that person, to think about how you relate to that person, can make it a more powerful experience, and strengthen the memory process as you’re going through it.
Etan Mintz: Excellent, that’s very helpful.
I was wondering if you could also just give us a preview for a moment about the next session just to whet our appetite, the Yom Ha’Shoah, and maybe just weave that from where we began in this journey in our first series, and where we’re going to conclude in the last piece of our last session that we have together.
Azi Grysman: Sure. So I’ve been talking a bunch over these sessions about the meaning that we make in our memories, right, and how we interpret events in our lives, and we incorporate those events into a sense of who we are. And that process is fundamental to memory, right. I talked in the first session about how you can’t have memory without meaning, you can’t have memory without interpreting it. And the Shoah poses the greatest challenge of all to this, because it’s a memory from which meaning cannot be made, in certain respects.
And I quoted Viktor Frankl, I’m not sure if it was last session or the session before, but the very concept of looking at memory from the perspective of meaning comes from Viktor Frankl, who was an Auschwitz survivor, who wrote about how the process of searching for meaning within the camps, [which] was something that could distinguish the people who survived from the people who didn’t. And there has been so much scholarship in the aftermath of the Holocaust, looking at how the survivors tried to story their experiences, how they tried to make sense of it, how they tried to rebuild their lives. And so I was hoping to look a little bit more closely at the process of making meaning from the Holocaust. What did it mean to survivors? What does it mean to us nowadays? And I’ve been recently looking through some footage, of interviews with certain family members of mine, and I was thinking of the possibility of sharing some of those, or at least sharing some insights that I gained from some of those interviews.