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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Representing Memory


The project aims to explore how memory is represented in a variety of situations. Since the cognitive revolution of the 1960s memory has been considered as the encoding, storage and retrieval of information. Traditional ideas have considered memory in individuals to be stored as a representation of a set of features within the brain. However, recent ideas have moved our understanding to include elements of extended cognition. For example, embodied cognition suggests that the representation of a memory includes actions and bodily movements (such as leaning backwards when remembering something from the past). The project aims to explore how these ideas of extended cognition can seek to explain memory at an individual level. This will include understanding the representation of information at a cellular level through to collaborative memory when memory can be shared between individuals. As well as considering how we might best explain memory representations within an individual we will then consider whether these same mechanisms can be used to understand the storage of information within a society and the transfer of information between individuals and across generations. Finally, the insights gleaned from this interdisciplinary project will be used to better understand memory within English Studies.

Term: Michaelmas 2020

Principal Investigator: Dr Alexander Easton, Associate Professor (Reader), Psychology,
Principal Investigator: Professor Simon James, Professor, English Studies,
Co-Investigator: Dr Jeremy Kendal, Associate Professor, Dept of Anthropology,

Project Description

Cognitive science typically conceptualizes memory as a process which encodes, stores and retrieves information. This concept works as a description of memory in Psychology, Neuroscience, Anthropology and many other disciplines. However, the concept of how the memory is represented is poorly understood across different disciplines, and recent theories have proposed elements of extended cognition. This project aims to explore the way in which memory is represented within individuals as well as across individuals and generations, understanding the way in which memory representations are understood and conceptualised across disciplines and using these multiple approaches to provide a coherent understanding of memory representations which can inform future work.

‘Representation’ can here be understood as a particular pattern of activity within a neural network through to a complex interaction of brain, body and the environment. A series of key questions challenge each of these frameworks, however. If memory is a stable pattern of neuronal activity then how can memories change over time and with context? If memory requires an interaction with the wider context then what is the mechanism by which this occurs, and does it apply to all memories? As claimed in a recent review article “A better understanding of the nature and dynamic changes of memory representations will lead to deeper insights regarding how memory is formed and transformed with experience” (Xue et al, 2017).

To fully understand how memories are represented there is a need to consider the representation of memory in many different situations. Any usable theory on the representation of memory has to be robust in the light of evidence from a range of sources. As a result the project will consist of five fortnightly seminars from the research team and linked IAS fellows. These presentations will introduce the research team to the discipline-specific perspective on memory representations.

For the intervening weeks there will be a series of workshops where all fellows and members of the research team come together to build on the knowledge provided by the seminars and work together to build a coherent theory that encompasses the evidence presented.

However, the need to cover a wide range of disciplines and perspectives cannot be entirely encompassed by 5 seminars. Nor can even five IAS fellows from different perspectives provide a complete overview of representation in memory. Therefore, during the term the project will have a day-long workshop with invited speakers to feed into the project. Through the combination of the research team, fellowships and external workshop speakers a wide range of different perspectives will be covered to ensure that the project understands evidence from all areas that feed into the question.

The final composition of the day long workshop will be determined by the final composition of the fellowship associated with the project. Importantly the overall project will address at least the following perspectives:

  1. Embodied/Extended Cognition
  2. Neuronal activity in representing memory
  3. Overlap of perception and memory
  4. Collaborative memory
  5. Virtual reality and embodiment in memory
  6. Use of technology to assist memory
  7. Cultural memories
  8. Transmission of memory across individuals, groups and generations

With this combination of topics, the project aims to explore the idea of embodiment from its origins to what it means for current perceptually driven theories of memory. Current theories which are used to interpret neuronal activity during memory tasks will be challenged by these ideas and tested to see whether they can be interpreted in light of embodied/extended cognition accounts of memory. Work on collaborative memory (where aspects of remembering are shared across individuals, with individuals focusing on remembering specific components) will be explored to understand the challenge this presents for conventional theories of memory, and whether distributed cognition can better account for the results from such studies. The role of embodiment has been explored in recent years with the use of VR technology and shown that memory for events is more accurate when the avatar used in VR more closely resembles a human. Technology can also speak to distributed cognition through the changes in individuals and societies moving information to be remembered into various devices (such as mobile phones). We will explore how this change in memory can best be accounted for and whether it reflects the key processes at play within and across individuals. This will be compared with non-technological solutions which might allow distributed cognition in other ways within individuals and within cultures – e.g. monuments for remembrance.

Through the day-long workshop, fortnightly seminars and regular research team workshops the project aims to collate all the evidence from these wide-ranging perspectives to get a fuller understanding of how we might represent memories. Do we as individuals encode what we see and remember through identifying a perceptual match, or do we include our movements, actions, thoughts and environment in the way we represent our memories? When we remember information for sharing across individuals do we use the same or different mechanisms? Is embodiment useful only for our own memories, or does it play a part in communicating remembered information across individuals (such as the use of ‘spatial’ language when talking about the past and future)?


  1. The findings of the project will be communicated as an output through a high-profile journal (such as Trends in Cognitive Sciences) to present an interdisciplinary perspective on representations in memory.
  2. The findings of the project will generate specific, testable hypotheses and the research team will work with the associated fellows to build experimental tests of these hypotheses following the conclusion of the project, leading to at least one research grant submission (e.g. to the Leverhulme trust for an interdisciplinary exploration of the theory driven questions delivered by the project).
  3. The findings will have impact on each of the individual disciplines involved, informing the way they discuss, model and theorise about memory. Dr Easton will deliver a research review directed at psychology and neuroscience researchers to demonstrate how extended cognition can challenge traditional perspectives and how future experimental work might incorporate these ideas. Dr Kendal will produce a review for an anthropology journal on how understanding the way memory is represented can inform understanding of the social transmission of information. Professor James will use the outcomes of the project to inform his monograph on Dickens for OUP.