Friday, 26 December 2014

Quebec - Je me souviens

Quebec's motto is Je me souviens or I remember and this has prompted me to do some research into memory and how our memories work, not a topic that's specific to Quebec, of course, but something which is of universal interest to the human experience.

It's not entirely clear how Quebec's motto came about, however, it seems to have been first written in stone in 1883 by the architect, Eugène-Étienne Taché, who designed the provincial parliament building in Quebec city.  It's funny how writing the motto in stone has literally kept it in human memory, so it persists as Quebec's motto until modern times.

Remember what, exactly?

Coat of Arms of Quebec
There are several possibilities for the source of this motto - it could have been adapted from the Latin phrase Ne obliviscaris (Do not forget) which is on the arms of the British Marquess de Lorne (a.k.a. the 9th Duke of Argyll) who was the fourth Governor General of Canada, including the period when the parliament was being built.  Or, as others point out, it could mean I remember the founders of Quebec (Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain etc) who were also honoured with statues on the parliament building.

Whichever way you look at it, Quebec's motto seems to encapsulate an idealogical struggle between the British rulers of Canada and their French subjects in Quebec - whereas the British are saying Don't forget (who is in charge around here), the French-Canadians are responding, I remember (who the founders of Canada actually were).

Personally, I think Taché's motto was a quiet act of rebellion on behalf of French-Canadians, superficially paying respect to the British Governor-General, but with a hidden message that would inspire fellow Canadiens.

What I don't remember

I've always thought of myself as having a bad memory - I think it's because I'm easily distracted and don't fully process things when they're happening, so I have bad 'recall' of events afterwards.  It amazes me when I look over the past blog posts and how many things I've understood and 'known' at one point, but no longer really remember.  Perhaps this blog should be called Learning (and then forgetting) about the World! 

Of course, it's impossible to remember everything and what I'm left with, after all of my learning and research, is a deeper understanding of the place I'm blogging about and a general impression that stays with me, even if I don't remember the detail of everything I've learnt! The joy of the Internet and the digital revolution, in a way, is that we no longer really need to remember things - information is constantly just a few clicks away, but I wonder how this will impact on future generations' ability to remember things?

Why do we need to remember things?

To help with my research, I read Memory: A very short introduction by Jonathan K Foster, part of the Oxford University Press's VSI series.  It's an interesting book which outlines our understanding of memory, how we memorise things, the difference between short- and long-term memory and major developments in human understanding of memory, such as Ebbinghaus' Learning curve, Bartlett's The War of the Ghosts story and Schacter's Seven sins of memory.

I was really impressed by the evidence of how unreliable memory is. A lot of the time, our memories are either completely made up or influenced by how we were feeling when the memory was being created.  Of course, there is a strong connection between memory and learning and, to answer the question above, the reason we need to remember things is because memory is key to our survival.

Without memory, we wouldn't be able to use the tools that have made us so successful as a species - not just physical tools, such as hammers and knives, but also tools like language, the ability to write and to think rationally, learning how to drive or operate machinery or technology - these are all dependent on our ability to consign thoughts and processes to memory.

How reliable are our memories?

What is a little bit worrying, however, is that we trust our memories as much as we do. If you ever talk to your parents, siblings or friends about events that happened a long time ago, you'll often find that you each have your own version of events.  Precisely because we can't remember the detail of things that we experience, our minds tend to summarise and leave us with an impression that becomes our total understanding of the past.

It's quite scary that, given what we know about the unreliability of memories, eyewitness accounts of crimes still play a large part in the evidence given in trials. I'm not sure what the solution is, but I do wonder whether or not eyewitness testimony is really that valid?

Change blindness

Another interesting phenomenon mentioned in the VSI book is the fact that most of us are blind to minor changes taking place in our immediate environment. As we're busy processing the world around us, our brains filter out information that doesn't seem to be that relevant.

As you can see in the video below, there is a well-tested experiment on change blindness that shows how you get Person A to ask Person B for directions on the street, but when you interrupt the conversation and replace the Person A with Person C, Person B will continue giving the directions without noticing that the person they're talking to is someone else.

Really interesting and I'm pretty sure I would fall for this one!

Another perspective on Je me souviens

The Quebecois motto Je me souviens has become a mantra for nationalists in Quebec, however Eric R Scott, a documentary film director based in Montreal has turned the motto on its head, by using it as the title for his documentary on anti-semitism in Quebec in the 1930's.  You can watch the whole documentary on YouTube and it's a topic that has caused a lot of controversy and inspired debate in modern Quebec (but also in Canada and other parts of the world).

I guess Je me souviens could be used as a rallying cry for any minority or subjugated population that has been written out of the history books. It is important to remember the past and learn from the mistakes of previous generations, particularly around issues such as the Holocaust.  I suspect, however, that reaching public consensus on how the past is remembered, is something that will continue to cause controversy and inspire debate for many years to come!

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