Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > This is why colleges need to hire historians

Apr 3, 2015

This is why colleges need to hire historians

A new study confirms what neuroscientists have been surmising for several years:  When we remember something the brain makes room for the new memory by deactivating an old one.  It doesn't delete the old memory the way you do when you hit the delete key on a computer.  But it pushes it back.  The brain automatically privileges new memories over old ones.  

Here's how psychologist Jeremy Dean explains the process:

The idea that forgetting helps you learn seems counter-intuitive, but think of it this way: imagine if you created a brain that could remember and recall everything. When this amazing brain was trying to remember where it parked the car, it would immediately bring to mind all the car parks it had ever seen, then it would have to sort through the lot. Obviously the only one that’s of interest is the most recent. And this is generally true of most of our memories. Recent events are usually much more important than ones that happened a long time ago. To make your super-brain quicker and more useful in the real world you’d have to build in some system for discounting old, useless info. In fact, of course, we all have one of these super-brains with a discounting system: we call it ‘forgetting’.

This has implications historians should be vigorously trumpeting.  The brain doesn't privilege old memories.  To retrieve them you need to be reminded of them or you forget them.  This is why when voters are asked who their favorite presidents are they quickly name some recent presidents.  It's also why when we are trying to make sense of some complicated foreign crisis we instantly reach for some past event that's top of mind rather than one that might be more salient.  

I can't think of a better reason to encourage students to take history classes.  History teaches us that we have to remember events that took place a long time ago.  History, to be sure, is more than memory.  But the first task of the historian is to remember the past.  If our brain doesn't do this automatically, somebody has to help us.  That's where historians come in. Historians can help us recall events we learned about in high school history class (or should have) that may help us put events into perspective.

Tell that to the STEM folks the next time they say there's no room for history in the school curriculum.

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