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Dawn Fulton, French Studies
Adam Hall, Biological Sciences

Memory is crucial to human thought and reasoning; fundamental to daily function, to the construction of personal identity, to social interaction, and historical documentation. Fields as varied as religion and computer science, literature, linguistics and anthropology have long grappled with the nature of memory and how it functions. Recent research in neuroscience has added new levels of complexity to our understanding of memory and its reliability, and to questions that cut across all disciplines: What is the relationship between memory and an event? Is memory a recording or a re-creation? How are collective memories constructed and sustained?

This year-long project aims to consider the great range of mechanisms, uses and representations of memory across disciplinary fields, with a particular focus on how the limitations of memory, and the ways in which memory can be manipulated, impact both the individual and society.

Over the past four decades, scientific studies of memory have proposed various classifications to understand the relationship between cognitive function and past experience. Memories have been classified as short and long-term, and as procedural (skills and behavior), semantic, and episodic, with localized brain regions recognized for specific memory function. Research in the ‘biology of mind’ has revealed molecular, cellular and systems underpinnings of memory. Neuroanatomy has identified the direct connections between sensory inputs (e.g. olfaction and gustation) to the hippocampus, an area of the brain intimately involved in memory consolidation. 

These connections between memory and the senses have long been intuited by thinkers outside the sciences. Proust’s meditation on the madeleine in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu explores the ways in which the experience of taste can open up an entire lifetime of personal memories. Philosophers from Locke and Hume to Bergson and Russell have focused on the relationship between memory and representation, while work by historians Frances Yates and Pierre Nora underlines the importance of place in the construction of memory. Sociologist Maurice Halbwach's theory of collective memory examines the sometimes fictional creations of memories that are then shared by members of a group or society.

Indeed, across all these fields we know that memory can be both created and manipulated. Fundamental to Freudian analysis was the notion of the unconscious mind as a reservoir for repressed memories which influenced consciousness. Psychoanalysis could draw forth certain of those memories and repress others. More recently the Tonegawa lab at MIT demonstrated that false memories can be deliberately implanted in a rodent brain using cellular and molecular techniques.  Works of artistic, cinematic, and literary representation can shape collective memory with tremendous effect. Goya’s revolutionary painting Los fusilamientos del tres de mayo (The Third of May 1808), for example, shaped public memory of the Spanish resistance during the Peninsular War. Films and novels about the Algerian War, from both sides of the Mediterranean, have confronted five decades of censorship—itself a potent form of repressed memory—reigniting national outrage and activism. At the same time, the misrepresentation of personal memory in the recent wave of “fake memoirs” (James Frey, Herman Rosenblatt, Margaret Seltzer) calls into question the relationship between art, memory and ethics.

In this project, we hope to explore the disciplinary intersections generated by the question of memory, its reliability and unreliability. Neuroscience research on confabulation, for example, has implications in criminology. History can be manipulated for political ends. Collective memory is constructed by archival research, acts of commemoration, and literary and artistic representation.  Technology is an overarching concern in numerous disciplines, as the rise of virtual communities in the twenty-first century and the increased digitalization of information has dramatically affected our understandings of individual and collective memory as well as our fundamental relationships to one another. Finally, we aim to bridge teaching and research through an ongoing reflection on the impact of memory in learning and in pedagogical practices. Have advances in digital access to information weakened our capacity to memorize and remember, and does it matter?

Smith and Five College faculty and staff are invited to apply for Memory: Form, Function, and Fallibility online.




Michael Thurston, English and American Studies

Spend five minutes watching a small child on the playground. She finds a set of stairs she has not navigated before. Tentatively and painstakingly, she figures out a combination of moves and holds that enable her to get to the top. What does she do then? She makes her way back down and does it again, more confidently, more quickly, more effectively.  

Play is an essential part of being human, critical to cognitive growth, social development and emotional health. It is a process by which we gain mastery over elements of our environment and a key factor in our relations with one another. According to evolutionary anthropologists and biologists, the activity of play seems to be built into our very DNA: young primates and other mammals “practice” behaviors they need in the world by engaging in play, learning to distinguish between the threatening and non-threatening, between friendly and lethal forms of interaction. For a group of children, the construction of the rules governing a game is often more compelling than the game itself. Some cognitive scientists and linguists posit that the “marking off” of a “play space” through signs and gestures is related to the development of language. Sociologists and educational philosophers see this crucial childhood activity as a way of practicing fundamental rules of social interaction and developing the skills for democratic participation.

One interesting aspect of play is  the way that difficulty or challenge is often inherent in playful activities. For example, it might be argued that much of what we do at Smith, from scientific experiments to theoretical writing and artistic creation, is simply (or not so simply) an elaborated and codified form of intellectual play. In such cases, the utility and value of difficulty bears a complicated relationship to notions of truth and meaning. Another related idea is the relationship of play (and its inherent challenge) to pleasure. Difficulty might be seen as the perfect example of the anhedonic, but is it possible to achieve the cognitive and affective rewards of mastery without sufficient challenges to overcome?

Indeed, the Kahn Institute itself might be seen as one of the important locations of play on campus. Here, we gather with no requirement to produce but, instead, with an imperative to play. A final question with which the group might grapple is the extent to which the play of academic inquiry is threatened by the demands for product and practicality imposed by the current political and economic culture. How can we best articulate the values of play? How can we best defend it from the requirements of work? Or how might we better understand the interaction of play and work, the role play plays in productivity?

This one-semester project aims to approach play from a variety of disciplinary perspectives in order to enrich our understanding not only of what play is but also of what we might gain by seeing as play some practices currently defined in other ways.

Smith and Five College faculty and staff are invited to apply for Play online.

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