Friday, April 3

’10 Questions’ lecture addresses memory, storytelling and capacity to change

UCLA faculty explored memory in their respective fields of neuroscience, sociology and theater at the panel Tuesday night. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Burnett/UCLA : Arts)

The “10 Questions” lecture series, which will address a different question each week, doubles as a course for students and a panel open to the public. The series will explore open-ended questions such as “What is beauty?”, “What is failure?” and “What is knowledge?”

Each week’s panel will feature two faculty members from the School of the Arts and Architecture and two faculty members from other departments who will approach the question of the week from the perspective of their academic disciplines.

Three professors explored memory in their respective fields of neuroscience, sociology and theater at a panel Tuesday night.

Kelsey Martin, neuroscientist and dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine, provided a biological view of memory, focusing on how memories are stored in the brain.

“Synaptic connections change with our experience,” Martin said. “If you remember anything at this evening, you will have a different structure in your brain.”

She talked about the different tools neuroscientists use to map the brain and its synapses, and what these maps reveal about how the brain stores memories.

“All of my past experiences are changing the way that I’m perceiving any ongoing experience. That, in turn, means that memory can be quite fallible and subjective,” Martin said. “It’s not a recording of reality – it’s somewhere between recording and creativity that comes with your entire past experiences.”

She said neuroplasticity – the capacity for synaptic connections to change – is highest in early childhood, which is why memories from that period continue to affect behavior throughout life. Memories formed in emotional situations are also more enduring, Martin said.

Providing a social perspective on memory, Darnell Hunt, professor of sociology and dean of social sciences, talked about how social structures interact with biological ones and discussed the parallels between individual memories and collective histories.

“As human beings, storytelling is hardwired into who we are,” Hunt said. “We connect with other people, we communicate by telling stories and often those stories involve our memories.”

Hunt talked about how memory affects and is affected by representation, identity and the production and consumption of media.

“Representations like race, like gender, inform the intertextual memories that we bring to the media experience. When we watch something on television, we don’t watch it cold, we’re always watching it in relation to other things we’ve seen in the past,” Hunt said. “These media texts both shape and are shaped by … the representations that circulate in society.”

Peter Sellars, professor of world arts and cultures, elaborated on how people’s memories form the basis for recorded history from the perspective of theater.

“What we do in performance is we take the voices of those who are no longer here and we give them new lives,” Sellars said. “We invite other people to speak through us.”

After the lecture, Sellars spoke about the merits of interdisciplinary discourse in academia.

“(Interdisciplinary discussion) liberates you from the limits of your discipline,” Sellars said. “Because every discipline has its own self-imposed and totally invented limits. Once you’re outside your comfort zone and outside your area of … expertise, discovery becomes possible again.”

Krista Vanuska, a second-year geography environmental studies student who attended the lecture, said she appreciated the different approaches the panelists presented.

“I feel like (Sellars) really allowed for the individual experience. He allowed room to breathe around this big topic,” Vanuska said. “And I really appreciated that it was scaffolded by the more factual sides of the biological and cultural processes.”

She said the range of perspectives allowed her to connect the topic of memory to her classes and her everyday experience.

“That’s also a product of my memory – it’s a little bit meta. The associations I made throughout the day made me inflect this presentation with my own point of view,” Vanushka. “It kind of brought an awareness of how what I remember from my day will be.”

This installment of the series was initially slated to have four speakers, as in previous weeks. Polly Nooter Roberts, a professor in the world arts and cultures department, was supposed to be the fourth panelist but died Sept. 11.

Brett Steele, dean of the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture and moderator of the event, opened the evening with a remembrance of Roberts and shared a written excerpt from her research about memory.

“This evening we continue to remember (Roberts). We hold her absence close to us throughout this conversation and every day here within the school,” Steele said. “We write her into our story this evening and dedicate this evening’s discussion to her memory.”

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