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Bodily and semiotic exploration of past events

- Another challenge of ecological psychology for commemorative activities -

Naohisa MORI (Sapporo Gakuin University)


Kyoko MURAKAMI (University of Copenhagen) 

The slides and texts below were presented at the 2nd Memory Studies Conference (University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark, 15th December). 

We have been working with an ecological approach to mnemonic phenomena, especially remembering and transmission of experience in commemorative activities. 

    First of all, we should let you know how ecological psychology conceptualize basic cognitive phenomena. Ecological psychology originates from James Gibson’s work and his followers, in which perception is thought of as pickup of specific information to objects in environment (in their term “invariants”) and possibilities of following actions (in their term “affordance”) through bodily exploration of environment. 

    Some of followers of Gibson, such as Edward Reed, Masato Sasaki and we, suggested ecological conceptualization of remembering. According to them, remembering is not reproduction or retrieval of memory traces in a brain but is bodily exploration and picking-up specific information 

    Remembering is considered a special mode of perception. The process of remembering starts with “dualisation” of environment. The present environment in which people are starting remembering is dualised to be two nested environment. A large environment is duration from to-be-remembered events to here and now. And a small one is duration from the beginning of the to-be-remembered events to its termination. In other words, we try to pick up information specific to something changed in continuous environment. 

How is it possible to transmit others’ experience to someone who did not share their experience? Mori & Murakami (2016) suggested non-experiencers can share others’ experience by exploring shared environment in which experiencers perform remembering. 

This is a situation in which a survivor of a great earthquake in Japan about 20 years ago remembers and tells what happened in his residual area. We interviewed him and shared the same environment with listening to his narrative on the disaster and seeing photos of the collapsed buildings. 

    We, non-experiencers, were learning how to explore the environment to be able to pick up information specific to the to-be-remembered events. Such information is possible to find out in the continuous environment from the disaster with support of semiotic means such as experiencers’ narrative and photos.

Semiotic means make non-experiencers narrow a range of exploration and easily orient them to to-be-remembered events.

When we are involved in remembering, especially commemorative activities, we perform two kinds of activity. They are “exploratory activity” and “performatory activity” which were introduced into ecological psychology by one of leading scholars Edward Reed. 

    Exploratory activity refers to exploration of environment to pick up information specific to objects and events. This kind of activity is performed with our body and our use of semiotic means. Performatory activity means production and modification of  environment through using our body and producing semiotic means. Performatory activity produces and modifies environment to facilitate our further exploration; in this case, for example, verbalisation of remembered objects and people, survivors’ narratives and curators’ messages attached to the displayed artifacts or objects.

    Performatory activity helps exploratory activity easier to specify information on to-be-rememebred events. And bodily and semiotic expression of results of exploratory activity is performatory activity. They are circularly and successively function in the process of rememebring to reach the identification of targeted events. Semitic means used by the survivor of the earthquake, narrative and display of photos, are classified as performatory activeity. 

    Experiencers’ products of performatory activity turn to clues to exploratory activity of non-experiencers as we saw in an example of the earthquake survivor and we. The survivor’s narrative and photos -products of their performatory activity- lead to our exploratory activity in the shared environment.

Museums are often constructed to memorize and commemorate disasters and sufferings by furnishing many clues to trigger the both kinds of activity. Let us take you through a tour of Nagasaki Atom Bomb Museum. 

At the entrance of the site of the museum, epitaph is displayed on stone walls. Entering the entrance gate, we take a counter clockwise walk around a pond to reach the entrance of the museum building. The director of the museum told us this walk metaphorically means the retrogression of time to the happening of the atom bomb disaster. Under the water of the pond, thousands of LED lights are furnished and turn on at night. According to the director, these light dots remind guests of the number of the deceased by the atom bomb.

Going down the stairs, the scenery makes us feel we are inside of coffin. We are going on along the silent and dim passage to the 2nd. underground floor.

On the 2nd underground floor, several clues to exploratory activity are furnished. Some of chief ones are Eulogy Space, notes & portraits and storytelling corner.

    Eulogy Space is the largest and main place in the museum in which guests pray for the deceased. Lists of the deceased  are enshrined in big shelves on the far side wall. 

    Notes of the victims and portraits of the deceased are preserved in electric files and available to the public. 

    Volunteers of storytelling are often stationed at a corner next to the notes & portraits. They talk about the disaster when requested by guests. To our surprise, storytellers whom we met at the interview day belong to the second-generation of the victims. They had no experience of the Atom Bomb. How did they learn to remember events they never directly experienced? Or were they merely stopytellers in an ordinalry sense, who had not learnt to explore shared environment relevant to the disaster and just gave a hearsay talk? We have not yet collected enough data on this questions and will work on them in near future.

Eulogy Space, notes & portraits and stories are all products of performatory activity and at the same time they facilitate and orient our exploratory activity. Semiotic means are often accompanied by bodily means of exploration. 

    The ceiling of Eulogy Space has large windows. We can see the sky through them at a specific angle. Why are the ceiling constructed like that? The director told that the sky we see from the windows had the point at which the atom bomb exploded. Guests perform exploratory activity there and share with the victims the continuous environment from the nuclear bomb attack. 

Now we summarise our points to argue in the present study. 

#1 We reconceptualise remembering from a viewpoint of ecological psychology

    Remembering is a special mode of perception. It is special because remembering is performed in dualised environment differently from perception which is performed in single environment. 


#2 We mention two kinds of activity involved in exploration process of remembering

    One is exploratory activity that functions to pick up information specific to targeted events. The other is performatory activity that makes exploratory activity easier by producing and modifying environment.

    Transmission of experience and other commemorative activities are also conceptualised on the same theoretical position. They are basically the discovery process of relevant information to targeted events by exploring the present environment. What non-experiencers are transmitted from experiencers is not representation of past events but exploration skills in present environment in order to specify information relevant to to-be-remembered events. 

    The authors are sure that ecological approach is more useful to understand commemorative activities and to assess their appropriateness.

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