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” course 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 she 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.
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.”
She introduced accounts of the Holocaust, Japanese internment camps, and African-American slavery, as well as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Native American novel Ceremony, among other works. Stu- dents visited UVM’s MRI Center for Biomedical Imaging and an exhibit on Native American art at the Fleming Museum.
Student research projects reflected the interplay between the neurological basis of memory and its societal component. One explored the history and community of grave stone carvers in marble-and-granite-rich Barre, Vermont, and how they memorialized a family member killed in the Attica prison uprising. Another student, from New Orleans, analyzed the official and non-official recollections of Hurricane Katrina. Still others explored war veterans’ PTSD and disparate experiences of 9/11.
“It was interesting to see how this societal, complex memory functions in many ways like our own individual memory,” Schreckenberger says. “Outside of our individual brain, our collective memory functions according to the same rules. It’s constructed in a narrative way. We hit on certain events and we build a story out of it.”
“We had students say, ‘This is incredible. I didn’t realize there were so many points of view out there,” Nishi recalls. “The dialogue and connections Helga and I make with each other is what students can use in the future.” After all, she says, “interdisciplinary study is the future of higher education.
Story by Meredith Woodward King G’03. Photo: Andy Duback