Cameron Hay, Healing and Memory

Another presenter at our Encultured Brain session is M. Cameron Hay-Rollins, a professor of anthropology at Miami University in Ohio. Her talk is The Relevance of Neurology to an Indonesian Healing Tradition, based on her work with the Sasak people on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. Here is the abstract:

Jampi are central to healing among the Sasak of Indonesia. When someone is ill, people respond with jampi — secret, oral formulae that are memorized verbatim. The ethnographic processes through which Sasaks memorize and later treat illness with jampi rely and elaborate upon neurological processes. In this paper, I explore the co-emergence of the social and neurological processes that facilitate verbatim oral memory and enable people to respond to illness constructively. Specifically I examine how Sasaks remember jampi, noting that the social contexts surrounding illness promote remembering in ways that fit the neurological evidence on successful effortful recall of episodic memories. Because research suggests that moderately stressful events promote memory accuracy, the Sasak practice of gathering around an ill person and urgently discussing the illness likely promotes jampi recall. In analyzing the Sasak reliance on jampi as a unique way of culturally elaborating neurological processes, I show the central importance of anxiety in facilitating memory and motivating agency in a world of compelling concerns. By integrating neurology into my analysis of Sasak healing practices, I conclude that methodologically examining anxiety in ethnographic contexts may contribute significantly to our understanding of social action.

Overall, Cameron integrates neurobiological insights into memory with anthropological research on social memory through a focus on ritual, language and enculturation through development. These concretes processes are what can get biological and cultural ideas together, and are a core focus of neuroanthropological research. She describes this research more in the forthcoming article “Anxiety, Remembering and Agency: Biocultural Insights for Understanding Illness” which will appear next year in Ethos. You can see all her publications at her website. But I’ll be happy to provide some highlights myself.

Her book Remembering to Live: Illness at the Intersection of Anxiety and Knowledge in Rural Indonesia comes with this Amazon description:

Sasaks, a people of the Indonesian archipelago, cope with one of the country’s worst health records by employing various medical traditions, including their own secret ethnomedical knowledge. But anxiety, in the presence and absence of illness, profoundly shapes the ways Sasaks use healing and knowledge. Hay addresses complex questions regarding cultural models, agency, and other relationships to conclude that the ethnomedical knowledge they use to cope with their illnesses ironically inhibits improvements in their health care.

Cameron recently published on her new work examining clinical interactions and medical information in the US in the paper Reading Sensations: Understanding the Process of Distinguishing `Fine’ from `Sick. Here’s a relevant part of the abstract where she is using a biocultural approach to understand how we move from our own experience to an illness category: “Perceptional and interpretive decisions regarding what sensations need to be attended to as potential symptoms may be the result of personal awareness of cultural ideas about vulnerability, sensation duration, and interference with activities. The interpretation of sensations is always tentative, conditional on further cultural information regarding whether the sensation should be constructed into a symptom.”

If you want to get in touch with Cameron, her email is hayrolmc at

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