At 10:00 AM this past Tuesday, across Israel, a siren wailed for two minutes as it does each year on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day – it is two minutes out of the day set aside to remember the approximately six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
When it starts, the entire country stops. People stand still. Conversation ceases. Trains and buses come to a halt. Cars are put in park, even on the highway. The only thing to do is to remember.
1. Remembering is present tense. In his most famous work, Confessions, fourth-century philosopher and theologian Augustine said that “there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future…The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation or hope.” In other words, memories do not exist in the past but rather in the present activity of remembering. This truth was captured in an interview with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Responding to the interviewer’s comment, “You seem to live in the past.” Weisel replied, “I don’t live in the past. But what can I do? — the past lives in me.”
2. Remembering creates meaning. Everyone appreciates a good story. Indeed, storytelling is universal to the human condition. Stories help us remember and transform what we experience firsthand into narratives so that we can make sense of our experience and communicate it to others. The cognitive neuroscience of memory is complex and still largely mysterious, but we know that autobiographical memory is central to the development of a sense of self. Remembering is the process by which we can use our past (memory) to understand our present and imagine our future.
3. Without remembering, we have no history. This is true for individuals and societies. For individuals, losing our capacity to remember is the hallmark feature of dementia and extreme trauma. Lack of memory makes it impossible for our brains to retain the information necessary to learn a new skill or understand the world around us. The same is true for human civilization. Around the world, sites like Stonehenge in modern-day England and Çatalhöyük in south central Turkey lack the remembering required to inform history. And without the capacity to remember, like individuals, societies cannot learn or evolve.
4. Remembering is linked to mental illness. Across a wide range of common mental disorders, the act of remembering can be painful, and troubling memories are common. Recalling traumatic experiences, for example, can increase the risk of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress. People with depression may be biased to recall negative memories, leading to increased rumination about negative experiences that may in turn contribute to depressed mood. Intrusive memories are common symptoms across a range of anxiety disorders. In the case of PTSD, for example, people re-experience unwanted memories in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive recollections of the traumatic experience. Remembering also plays a central role in substance use disorders in forming addictive habits.
5. Remembering is linked to mental health. In the same way that remembering can be negatively associated with our mental health, it is associated with myriad positive impacts. As described above, remembering is foundational to our psychological development of self. As a strategy to enhance one’s overall outlook and mood, intentional remembering of positive experiences has garnered the attention of neuroscientists and the general public alike. Although such strategies do not appear to help people with clinical depression, research suggests that retrieving happy memories improves mood for people without a history of depression. And constructive use of storytelling supports memory in ways that serve to enhance listening skills, imagination, positive emotions, and optimism.
The two-minute siren of Holocaust Remembrance Day is a piercing reminder of the duty, challenge, gift, and inescapable complexity of remembering.