University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Exploring the 'Texture of Memory"

Professors Helga Schreckenberger and Rae Nishi
Professors Helga Schreckenberger and Rae Nishi. Photograph by Andy Duback


Exploring the 'Texture of Memory"

In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust writes about a memory that “is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect.” Only petites madeleines, dipped in tea, can prompt his narrator’s recollection of his childhood in the fictional village of Combray.

As twenty sophomores in an Honors College seminar learned last spring, Proust was describing a relationship that neuroscientists would uncover decades later. Smell, the most primitive of senses, can evoke memories buried deep inside the brain. Both long- and short-term memories are stored and encoded via synaptic activity that forms neural patterns. Bound together, neurons can be reactivated and retrieved as memory.

In light of recent neuroscience research, Proust’s passage begs for an interdisciplinary study of memory. UVM’s “Texture of Memory” does just that, and dissects other works of literature and film accordingly. The course’s co-teachers span colleges and disciplines: Rae Nishi, professor of neuroscience in the College of Medicine, and Helga Schreckenberger, chair and professor of German and Russian in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I’m always trying to find a way to connect the colleges together, especially to connect the sciences with the humanities and the arts,” says Nishi, who directs the Neuroscience Graduate Program and also the Neuroscience, Behavior and Health Transdisciplinary Research Initiative. 

When Nishi sent out an email looking for a co-teacher from the humanities, Schreckenberger responded immediately. A decade ago, she taught a course focused on Holocaust memory, prompted by her research on contemporary Austrian literature.

“To teach a course with a scientist was a real opportunity, and I learned a lot,” Schreckenberger says. “I have a better understanding of the complexity of memory.”

In Nishi’s explanations of brain anatomy and neurological function, she aimed for the “big picture” to make science approachable. The students examined “flashbulb” memories of individual and collective experiences. They discussed the groundbreaking neurological research on H.M., the epilepsy patient who lost his short-term memory after removal of his hippocampi. And they debated the accuracy of memory, whether false, manipulated, or forgotten.

In focusing on the “texture” of memory, Schreckenberger explains, “You think about the different layers, and that’s what we were trying to show the students. You have those individual neurological processes, which lead to personal memory and also get played out in societal processes.”

Last year’s course drew equal numbers of science and humanities students, and it’s running again this spring. 


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