Sometimes social workers ask me how they can connect Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or spatial analysis to their work. For macro social work, the connections are easy. We can visualize community assets, identify crime hotspots, look at the ways in which environmental hazards cluster in certain communities…the possibilities are endless. But, for clinical and micro focused social work, the connections are not as easy to draw. In this article, I want to open up this discussion in order to consider the ways place and space shape our memories and how they may hold broader implications for the use of spatially oriented technologies in social work practice.
When I reviewed an article suggested by Nancy Smyth, the dean at the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo SUNY, I was drawn to the potential implications for social work. The article was on a recent study conducted by Michael Kahana and his colleagues at Penn State University where the participants used a game-based simulation in which they walked around a virtual town dropping off packages. The researchers then measured participants’ brain response when asked to recall where they had dropped off packages. They determined that neurons in the hippocampus act as a “brain GPS device” that stores and “geotags” memories. Put simply, their tests and brain images revealed that during the recall process, these memory geotags activate just before the participant recalls a memory.
Their interest is in the role of the hippocampus in cognition; I’m interested in some of the practical implications of these findings for social workers. Micro social workers might be able to use these types of findings to better understand how the macro environment and the notion of “place” can shape their clients’ well being. How do we work with a client who experiences a traumatic event in their home or community? If memories contain geotags, these place-based triggers could be an important area for intervention especially if they are places the client cannot avoid.
From a macro perspective, could community locations trigger collective trauma? In my work in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, I’ve observed how places can shape and inform collective memories. In the middle of the once thriving neighborhood business district lies a vacant building bearing the telltale shape of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Years ago, a teenager was shot and killed there while in the drive through with his mother. The restaurant closed but the building remains a scar on the landscape; a geotagged community trauma yet to be healed.
What other social work implications might the concept of memory geotags lend itself to?
Samantha Teixeira is an Assistant Professor at the West Virginia University School of Social Work. She earned her PhD with distinction at University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work in 2014. Her research is focused on how housing and neighborhood environmental conditions affect youth and how youth can be engaged in creating solutions to environmental problems in their communities.