Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Trusting early memories

One group of people who need to know about children's minds are those who deal with them in a legal capacity. Among other things, lawyers, judges and law enforcers need to understand about young people's capacity to give consent, how they respond to the social context of questioning, and how they represent past events about which they might be asked to testify.

The British Psychological Society recently published a set of guidelines on the topic of the law and human memory. The report, authored by a working party chaired by Martin Conway, considers the legal implications of recent findings on memory and forgetting. When children are involved in the legal process, such as in situations involving abuse, cases can hang on the accuracy of a child's memory. And yet those in the legal professions rarely take research on memory into their reckoning, preferring instead to rely on expert witnesses to vouch for the reliability or otherwise of participants' recollections.

There are some thorny problems here, and the report demands to be read and weighed carefully. One point made by the authors stood out for me in particular. On the basis of a great deal of research, the authors explicitly caution against comparisons between human memory and mechanical recording media such as video tapes. But these are errors that are still widespread. The writer Hilary Mantel, for example, in her acclaimed memoir Giving Up The Ghost (Fourth Estate, 2003), puts it like this:
"Though my early memories are patchy, I think they are not, or not entirely a confabulation, and I believe this because of their overwhelming sensory power [...] As I say 'I tasted,' I taste, and as I say 'I heard,' I hear: I am not talking about a Proustian moment, but a Proustian cine-film. Anyone can run these ancient newsreels, with a bit of preparation..."
For Mantel, the vividness of her memories is the guarantee of their accuracy. Decades of research into autobiographical memory show that this is simply wrong. Indeed, the BPS report specifically warns against trusting memories just because they have vivid sensory properties. Memory is too much a tale of storytelling. The only true guide to the accuracy of memories is, ultimately, independent corroboration.

You can download the BPS report here.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Around the table

Developmental psychologists like their laboratories and their experimental tasks, but they also recognise that many of the complexities of children's development only reveal themselves amid the noise of everyday life. In their search for naturalistic contexts for their observations, those who study children's minds have often seen the value of family mealtimes. Mealtimes follow pretty set scripts; they keep energetic toddlers in the same place for a few minutes at a time; and they involve all sorts of verbal and nonverbal communication. As well as using the family dining table as a context within which to observe children directly, psychologists have also studied the effects of exposure to these particularly important social routines.

The latest Social Policy Report Brief from the Society for Research in Child Development summarises some of these findings and calls for their wider dissemination. Eating together is linked to vocabulary growth and academic achievement in younger children, and is associated with lower rates of behaviour problems. There are benefits in terms of avoiding obesity and eating disorders. Teenagers who eat with the family five or more times a week are protected against the temptations of nicotine, marijuana and alcohol. Shared meals tend to be healthier, and teenagers who enjoy them get through more fruit and vegetables. 

All this, when the average American family mealtime lasts about twenty minutes. For this important context for development, even a short exposure seems to make a big difference. 

You can download the Brief here

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is he nearly here yet?

Isaac can't wait. Today is Christmas Eve, which means that tonight Santa Claus will come down the chimney and 'drink some of that special wine that he likes'.

'Single malt whisky,' I correct him. 

'I'm so excited,' he says. 'I want him to come now.'

I wrote about children's perception of time in the book. In the chapter entitled 'The Young Doctor Who', I describe some experiments conducted by my colleague Teresa McCormack. Children were shown a picture of an owl called Barney and listened to the sound Barney made (a tone lasting half a second). They then heard some sounds (each of differing lengths) made by other owls, followed by some test trials in which they had to judge whether the sound they were hearing was Barney's sound (the half-second one):
Five-year-olds (the youngest children tested so far) tend to claim that sounds shorter than half a second are Barney’s sound: that is, children remember the tone as being shorter than it was in reality. It is as though their own internal clocks are running too fast, causing them to judge that time is passing more quickly than it really is. Those children who pester their parents with pleas of ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ may simply have speeded-up body clocks. Appealing to concrete intervals measured in conventional units of time (‘We’ll be there in half an hour’) is no solution, since a five-year-old’s half an hour is quite a bit shorter than that of the person behind the wheel.
The historian of psychology Douwe Draaisma also considers some distortions of time perception, but focusing on the other end of the life span. In his book Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older (see the books carousel at the bottom of this page), he considers how the pressures on time perception in old age might work in the opposite direction. The wheels that measure time turn more slowly (perhaps because of a reduced rate of metabolism), and so the years fly by. 

Draaisma also quotes that other great psychologist of time, Marcel Proust. In The Guermantes Way, Marcel can think of nothing other than his forthcoming appointment with Mme de Stermaria: 
For as a general rule, the shorter the interval is that separates us from our planned objective, the longer it seems to us, because we apply to it a more minute scale of measurement, or simply because it occurs to us to measure it at all.
So it is with Isaac and Santa. If he had other things to distract him, the hours might not drag so. If he were eighty years old, the day would fly by. But he is five, and in for a excitable, dragging wait. It is going to be a long day. 

Happy Christmas to all. I hope you'll drop by again in the New Year. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The horror remembered

To the Wellcome Collection for Shona Illingworth's moving and thoughtful installation, 'The Watch Man'. The piece, which forms part of the current exhibition on War and Medicine, recreates the experience of a war veteran who witnessed one of the most shocking events of the Second World War. I was particularly struck by the way that Illingworth used sound and film together, and sometimes working at cross-purposes, to create the sense of a past alive in the present. A feature of a traumatized mind is that its fragments of remembered horror lie close to the surface of consciousness, at least until such time as they can be ordered into coherent representations of what happened. 

All of this fits well with the idea that memories are constructed out of fragments of sensory experience combined with more schematic knowledge about one's own life. This was one of the themes of our subsequent discussion yesterday at the Wellcome. I was part of a group of social scientists, artists, journalists and filmmakers who had been invited to discuss some key questions around war and memory. Another important factor in the making of the piece, Illingworth told us, was the idea that our capacity to suppress traumatic memories becomes weaker as we get older—hence the particularly vivid experiences of the old man at the centre of the piece. 

All of which got me wondering again about how traumatic memories function in childhood. We were treated to a fascinating talk by my Durham colleague Catherine Panter-Brick, who has been running a research project with children affected by militarised violence in Afghanistan. We also had a compelling talk by the photo-journalist Tom Stoddart from Getty Images, who showed some of the photos he has taken in Kosovo, Sarajevo, Goma, in post 9/11 New York, and elsewhere. As children are rarely spared from such atrocities, many of these pictures show young faces. 

There is a common understanding, probably stemming from psychoanalytic theory, that traumatic memories work differently to ordinary remembering. In their recent review of psychological research in the area, Ingrid Cordón and colleagues suggest that memories for traumatic events are forgotten and recalled in similar ways to memories for happier ones. In one study of children who had suffered a documented trauma such as sexual abuse or kidnapping, traumas that had happened before the age of around three were only sketchily recalled, if at all. Even with older children, there is little evidence that traumatic events are remembered in a fundamentally different way to everyday ones. Those that are recalled are often recalled for longer, but that may just be because traumatic events are distinctive, and distinctive events, good or bad, stick in one’s mind. This leads us to a paradox, because it is indisputable that traumas mess you up. Childhood sexual abuse, for example, is reported by a substantial majority of psychiatric patients troubled by hearing voices. However it is that traumatic events have their effects, it can’t be through anything that is accessible to consciousness. Whatever influences they have on our behaviour or future mental health, we don’t seem to recall them any differently to anything else.

Which brings it home to me how much more we need to learn and understand about memory following trauma. Young children's memory is fragmentary anyway, and even psychologically undamaged kids must strive to create coherence just as a traumatized mind must. I will be blogging more on these topics in the months to come; as ever, I would welcome any thoughts. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Thousand Days of Wonder

In April next year, Avery (a division of Penguin USA) will publish The Baby in the Mirror in its US edition. Here's what the jacket will look like. You can see the catalogue entry by clicking here and scrolling to p. 84. I'll be posting more details about the US edition in the New Year. 

The book can be pre-ordered from Amazon.com by clicking in the box on the right. You can also order through Barnes & Noble and Borders

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Who is the baby in the mirror?

Enough people have asked me this question to make me think it needs some kind of public answer. Is that Athena on the cover of the book? For some people who have asked this question, it has been a way of cautiously seeking confirmation of something that has already been assumed. Given that there is so much of us already in this book, why wouldn't I have gone the whole hog and put a picture of her on the cover?

It doesn't help that the book has occasionally been described as 'containing photographs of the author's daughter'. The book contains images, for sure, mostly still-frame captures from our home movies, many of which were actually shot by Athena. But she herself appears only fleetingly, unrecognisably. This has been intentional, of course. As father/author, I felt that she had had quite enough scrutiny in the pages of the book to need attention in any other medium. I wanted her to come alive through the words on the page, and let readers fill in the physical picture in their imaginations. Her name is known, but her face is not. We would all want it to stay that way.

So would I put her photograph on the cover? Of course not. The image is a stock photo, and I want to ask no more about it than that. The baby in the mirror is someone's little girl, deserving of her own privacy. As are all our babies.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The power of lullaby?

News this week that mothers are lulling babies to sleep with pop songs rather than traditional lullabies. We know that even very young babies have a capacity to recognise melody, and that some of this learning takes place even before birth. Music provides a source of organised perceptual stimuli that probably helps to shape processes of synapse formation, neural pruning and cortical differentiation from pretty much as soon as hearing is established in the second trimester. That is not the same as saying that music makes you smarter. A parent can value music as an enriching force in their child's environment without being committed to believing in the Mozart Effect

Mozart has become established as a leading entertainer of western children ever since researchers at the University of California, Irvine, reported that listening to his Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major improved college students’ spatial reasoning. In a perhaps reckless effort to dramatize their findings for a lay audience, the UCI researchers translated the improvement into notional IQ scores, leading to the inevitable tabloid headline that listening to Mozart adds eight or nine points to your IQ. Although the intelligence boost was short-lived, the idea took a grip. Most bizarrely, people took the IQ point literally, and assumed that it must apply to babies and children too. An industry grew up, relieving parents of their dollars in return for Mozart CDs and videos, and even stethoscopic devices delivering interuterine muzak: Amadeus piped in to the womb. In fact, the Mozart Effect has been almost entirely debunked by subsequent studies, and there is not a shred of evidence that listening to the stuff, either in the womb or in the nursery, makes children any brighter.

One interesting point here, though, is that the researchers responsible for the original Mozart Effect findings hypothesised that the effect would be specific to Mozart's music, or music very like it. Other kinds of music, such as pop, were not supposed to have the same magical powers. It seems that the parents in this survey disagree. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents thought that pop songs were better than traditional lullabies. The presence of Dizzee Rascal in the top 20 might be a surprise, but some of these tunes (stand up Whitney Houston and Bryan Adams) are already famous for their soporific properties. My own tune of choice, when the children were babies, was that old Mancini classic, Moon River. What do readers of this blog find works with their little ones? And what explanations do you have for the power of lullaby?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Santa Run

Not a post on children's development today, but something much more important. This weekend Athena and I will be dressing up as Santa and running 4km in support of the Sunshine Fund and Zoe's Place Baby Hospice. You can support these good causes by clicking on the links. There are more details on the event here.