Thursday, December 21, 2006

Memory of Place

While making plans to get a dog, my husband and I had a discussion about the size of our yard. His first choice for a canine companion was a large breed notorious for its need to run. I argued that owners of such an animal should have a big yard. To which my husband replied, “We have a big yard!”

We don’t have a big yard, but I can understand why my husband might think otherwise. Chris grew up on a narrow street where the houses are so close together you can almost reach out the window of one and touch the side of another. His yard consisted of a small patch of grass and a sidewalk. By his standards, our one-acre parcel is huge.

I, on the other hand, grew up in a farmhouse surrounded by 100 acres. Our yard feels small to me, but to be fair I was willing to give it a verbal upgrade of “medium.” In spite of this, we ended up getting a small dog that can run like the wind in our medium sized yard.

The small dog was my idea. I guiltily admit to sabotaging all of our plans by coming home with him unexpectedly. (Not one of the smoother moments in our marriage.) While the acquisition of the little black ball of fluff truly was spontaneous, I suspect the idea of a large dog bumping around in our small (okay, medium) sized home was more than I could take. In addition to our conflicting spatial perceptions, my husband’s tolerance of how the space around him is filled also differs from mine. Prior to moving in together, Chris accused me of being “sparse” in my decorating, while I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of “stuff” crammed into his little apartment.

I believe our differences stem from an inherent sense of space imprinted on us as children. The environment we are raised in continues to influence our adult perceptions for a number of reasons. For starters, us humans cope with the phenomena we encounter by slotting them in to the understanding of the world we have already developed.(1) In other words, we process what we don’t know with what we do know. Our memories determine our response.

Now, I can remember growing up with a lot of land around me, but I can’t say I consciously think of this when I consider the size of my yard. My response comes from a feeling. What feels spacious to my husband feels closed-in to me. Our property is tucked into a hillside and surrounded by trees – it’s very different from the open fields of my youth.

However, my perception of closed space isn’t the result of a single observation or a specific memory of my childhood home, rather it is the result of all the messages carried by all of my senses and how these messages compare with previous messages I have received throughout my life. Obviously, our senses carry more information than we can process at any given time. The totality of all this undifferentiated input we perceive in a general way as ambience.(2) Thus, the ambience generated by my current yard feels different than the ambience generated by my childhood yard. I interpret or generalize this difference as a feeling of being closed-in.

Memory is key in determining how we categorize the ambience or feeling of a place. Memory functions on a number of levels to determine our response. As scientists continue to unravel the functions of the human brain and establish how memories are formed, they have recognized two different kinds of memory: declarative and nondeclarative.
Declarative memory is for facts, ideas and events. (i.e. I can remember growing up on a large piece of property.) Nondeclarative memory typically involves knowledge that is reflexive rather than reflective in nature. This memory is unconscious and results in performance without awareness.(3) (I inhabit space with stored perceptions of other spaces I have inhabited – I unconsciously refer to these perceptions and respond accordingly.) Nondeclarative memory greatly influences our interaction with space.

While declarative memory can create an emotional connection to a place (For example, the association of a place with a memory of a particular event or time.) I propose nondeclarative memory plays a role in the development of a physical connection to place. Nondeclarative memory is subconsciously recalled through a response or behavior and behavior can be reduced to biological function.
In her book, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions and Actions, Winifred Gallagher provides some excellent examples of the impact place has on biological function. She views “the earth and its processes as a unified living organism rather than as a grab bag of separate biological and geophysical systems.”(4) According to Gallagher, everything is connected. She acknowledges how “even the simplest microorganism depends on environmental interactions to survive” and extends her examples from “our simplest [cellular] level up through any state in our development.”(5)
Gallagher supports her opinions by explaining how light, temperature, altitude and even geophysical energies affect us biologically. However, her most winning argument is embodied in her discussion of the womb as place. When one considers a developing baby’s physical dependency on its environment – a connection made so apparent by the coiling umbilical cord – it’s not too far of a stretch to accept our dependency on the place we inhabit. The light, the air, the temperature, the space – “our relationship with the larger world is built from countless sensory interactions between us and our settings.”(6)

A high percentage of our sensory interactions and subsequent biological responses are primarily recorded by nondeclarative memory. In their book, Memory From Mind to Molecules, Larry Squire and Eric Kandel explain how early behavioral psychologists unknowingly characterized a number of nondeclarative forms of memory. Specifically, they identified two major learning procedures: nonassociative and associative learning.
Habituation and sensitization are examples of nonassociative learning. In these types of learning, a subject learns about the properties of a single stimulus – such as a loud noise – by being exposed to it repeatedly. [The subject will no longer be startled by the loud noise after hearing it over a period of time.] Classical and operant conditioning are examples of associative learning. Here a subject learns about the relationship between two stimuli (classical conditioning) or about the relationship of a stimulus to the subject’s behavior (operant conditioning). Thus, in classical conditioning, an animal that learns to associate a bell with the taste of food will salivate when it hears the bell. In operant conditioning the animal will learn to associate pressing a bar or key with the delivery of food… (7)
Squires and Kandel’s discussion on nondeclarative memory supports Winifred Gallagher’s claim that “much of what we assume is ‘instinctive’ behavior has actually been learned in early life.”(8) “In a very real sense, the places in our lives get under our skin and influence our behavior in ways we often don’t suspect.”(9) The authority place has on our behavior can be traced to the formation of nondeclarative memories and offers proof of our physical connection with place.


1. Bender, Barbara, "Time and Landscape." Current Anthropology 43.4 (August-October 2002): p103(10)

2. Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions (New York: Poseidon Press, 1993), p. 23

3. Larry R. Squire and Eric R. Kandel, Memory from Mind to Molecules (New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2003), pp. 24-25

4. Gallagher, p. 23

5. Gallagher, pp.15-16

6. Gallagher, p. 127

7. Squire and Kandel

8. Gallagher, p. 168

9. Gallagher, p. 127

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