Saturday, November 5, 2011

A seven-year-old's Saturday

A chapter in Pieces of Light is going to deal with the use of SenseCam as a memory aid for people with amnesia. SenseCam is a little camera worn around the neck which takes pictures of the world as you move through it. Various sensors embedded in the device detect movement and changes in light and temperature, and trigger the taking of a picture through its wide-angle lens. I borrowed one for a week from the memory researcher Chris Moulin at the University of Leeds, and used it to perform my own memory experiment, described in the book.

I also thought it would be fun to let my seven-year-old try it out. He took it with him on a shopping trip one Saturday afternoon, and I assembled the resulting images into a timelapse movie. I think it gives a lovely insight into what the world might look like to a seven-year-old.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Barnes, his memory

Julian Barnes was announced last night as the winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. In beautifully concise (and, controversially, rather readable) prose, the novel recounts the efforts of a middle-aged man to make sense of past relationships and their unintended consequences. I thought it was a worthy winner, and it's nice to see Barnes (three times an also-ran) getting the acclaim he deserves.

I jumped on this book when it came out because of several comments I had seen about its theme of memory. All novels are about memory, of course, but this one seemed to be taking seriously a reconstructive view of how we remember: the various ways in which who we are now can change how we make sense of what happened then. On the very first page, the protagonist Tony questions the reliability of his own testimony: 'This last isn't something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed.'

And yet the well-documented unreliability of memory isn't quite as interesting to Barnes as its regular habits. When Tony hears about the existence of his late friend Adrian's diary, he wonders whether getting hold of it will dislodge his remembering from the ruts it has been stuck in. Reading Adrian's diary, he thinks, 'might disrupt the banal reiterations of memory. It might jump-start something—though I had no idea what' (p. 77).

Tony is struggling to uncover a truth about the past, and the fact that he always remembers things in the same way is an obstacle to progress. Barnes recognises, even celebrates, the slippery truth of memory, and sees Tony's infuriating constancy of memory as stemming from the habitual nature of his storytelling about the past, rather than from any object-like permanence of his memory representations. Remembering happens in the present moment, and each act of remembering is shaped and constrained by what has gone before. We create memory fictions—the same fictions—so many times over that they come to have a special kind of constancy. It's not that we're laying them down in some permanent store and repeatedly accessing their immutable truths. Rather, we make memories in the present tense, according to the needs of the present. If they tell the same story each time, it's because they are more like habits than things.

The Sense of an Ending presents the most sophisticated view of memory I have seen in fiction for a while, and it offers a nice antidote to descriptions of remembering that liken it to the loading of a mental DVD containing a faithful representation of a past event. On another occasion, the old-fashioned view of memory creeps in, such as when Tony complains (about one episode of forgetting) that 'my brain must have erased it from the record' (p. 119). Memory is not a tape recorder: it has neither a playback head nor a record one, and the analogy is as misleading as it is entrenched.

One of the most interesting parts of the novel describes how a shift in Tony's feelings towards his former lover’s parents unlocks new memories of their relationship:
But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change? … I don’t know if there’s a scientific explanation for this… All I can say is that it happened, and that it astonished me. 
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape, 2011), p. 120 
I would be the last to want to apply a reductionist method to understanding fiction that's as good as this, but these kinds of circumstance crop up frequently in the modern science of memory. As is the case in memories for trauma, changing your current interpretation of a past event can change the way you remember it. You recall the emotionality of an event differently, for example, according to whether you are asked to recall it from a first-person point of view (where you are more likely to focus on emotions and feelings) or from a third-person perspective (where you are more likely to concentrate on the actual facts of the matter) [1].

More than just being about memory, though, I think this novel is a return to one of Barnes' favourite themes: that of the self in time. As Tony comments right at the outset, 'we live in time—it holds us and moulds us—but I've never felt I understood it very well.' I recall (probably badly, through the dusty pane of memory) a passage from Barnes' first novel, Metroland, in which the narrator comments that everyone is born to fit best into a particular lifestage. Which means, he expands, that you can come across people in their teens who really would be more at home in their own lives if they were in their forties, so that when they eventually reach that age it's like a homecoming.

I'd love to back this up with a quotation, if anyone remembers it. Tony's problem is that he never quite works out where in his life he fits best. It was that sense of a self trying to find its place in time that struck me most about this memorable literary winner.

[1] Robinson, J. A., & Swanson, K. L. (1993). Field and observer modes of remembering. Memory, 1, 169-184.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A new kind of science writing

I was moved last weekend by a new blog post from the eminent cognitive neuroscientist Uta Frith on the inspiration that Jorge Luis Borges offered her as a young researcher. Borges is well known among psychologists for one particular story, 'Funes the Memorious', in which the eponymous Funes is left (after a riding accident) unable to forget anything. ‘My memory,’ he complains, ‘is like a garbage heap.’ Condemned to store every irrelevant perceptual detail, Funes suffers from a crippling inability to abstract or generalize:
He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the RĂ­o Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho.
Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions (Penguin, 1998), p. 135.

Frith makes the connection to another prodigious memorizer, A. R. Luria's neuropsychological case study known as S. As examples of 'systems with no information reduction', Funes and S. are considered by Frith to shed light on the mysterious syndrome of autism, which has sometimes been characterized as involving a difficulty in separating meaningful from irrelevant information.

I am always delighted to read more about Luria, whose writings to my mind have important and largely unacknowledged implications for cognitive neuroscience. Did Luria know of Borges' story, or the other way round? Frith is doubtful. Jonah Lehrer has considered this question, and also wonders whether a link can be proven. We know that real-life equivalents of Funes exist. So-called hyperthymestic syndrome is rare: so rare, in fact, that only about six cases have ever been described. Here's a lovely Radiolab piece, also from Lehrer, on the perils of remembering everything.

When setting Funes off against S., it's important to recognise some crucial differences between the scientific and the literary cases. Beyond his prodigious memory capacities, S. (real name: Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky) is probably even more famous for his synaesthesia, a capacity that Funes is not mentioned as having. Funes presumably suffered a brain injury after his fall from his blue roan horse; no such neurological insult is recorded for Shereshevsky. Funes is an unhappy mnemonist: insomniac, cognitively disabled, 'battered' by an 'inexhaustible reality'. Shereshevsky, for all his pecularities, was able to function in his world, although Luria describes him as 'a somewhat anchorless person, living with the expectation that at any moment something particularly fine was to come his way.'

Uta Frith's real interest in her blog post is in the way that fiction can inspire scientific writing. One observation that I would want to add to her analysis is to note what a brilliant writer Luria was. This is him on Shereshevsky's personality:
An individual whose conscious awareness is such that a sound becomes fused with a sense of colour and taste; for whom each fleeting impression engenders a vivid, inextinguishable image; for whom words have quite different meanings than they do for us—such a person cannot mature in the same way others do, nor will his inner world, his life history tend to be like others'.
A. R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist (Harvard, 1968), p. 151. 

This is science writing that takes the human seriously, and which might belong in what Jonah Lehrer has called 'a fourth culture', one which 'will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience' (Proust was a Neuroscientist, Houghton Mifflin, 2007, p. 196). Plenty of fiction writers have travelled in Borges' direction, of course, incorporating science into their fictions. Lehrer has nominated Ian McEwan's Saturday, with its metaphysically anxious neurosurgeon protagonist, as the standard bearer of the new fourth culture. I myself am much less convinced about this example, for reasons I will explain at this talk in London on Saturday and in future posts on this blog.

I guess that Frith would be enthusiastic about the cultural shift that Lehrer describes. (For those who aren't used to seeing scientists of her stature showing such literary erudition, I should point out that she is the only psychologist I know who has managed to slip an allusion to Goethe into the title of a book chapter.) Here's how she gives voice to her dream:
Imagine writing fiction as if it were a scientific account, footnotes, references and all. Imagine writing up empirically based research as if it were a suspenseful narrative. I have been seeking this kind of cross-over, but have never achieved it myself.
It's important to set the limits of this kind of ambition. I for one will not be submitting any journal articles written as suspenseful narrative, not any time soon. The reporting of science in academic journals needs to hit certain targets of clarity, detail, interpretative balance, context, intellectual rigour and brevity. The scientific article has developed its own aesthetic, and to me it is an attractive one. A well-written paper can be a joy to read (as we scientists know when we referee manuscripts that fall far short of these standards). But reading journal articles does not press the same buttons for me that reading good fiction or non-fiction does. I don't think it should even try to do so.

For me, Frith's question bears more on the kind of writing we do to engage with and communicate science, rather than the scientific reports themselves. There, I would argue that the dominant genre is indeed suspenseful narrative. If that is true, I would argue that Frith already has her wish. Joshua Foer's recent book on 'mental athletes' (which also showcases S.'s story) is a good example of how effective science writing can be when it is shaped as a thriller, complete with clearly demarcated plot-drivers and end-of-chapter cliffhangers.

I think, though, that this kind of hang-onto-your-hats thrillerism is the least that science writing can learn from fiction. I don't read thrillers, on the whole: too often I find them formulaic, psychologically shallow and uncomfortably constrained by the rules of their genre. I hate to say it, but that's my feeling about much science writing as well. A genre has grown up that seems never to examine its own methods, where facts are told (often in a faintly patronising, gee-whiz tone) rather than being shown, or allowed to be felt. You could be forgiven for thinking that there was no other way of doing it.

I'm not happy with that orthodoxy, and will keep trying to find new ways of writing about science. When I embarked on The Baby in the Mirror (published in the US as A Thousand Days of Wonder), I wanted to write a science book that read like a novel. The story was about a person—my daughter—and so it had to take character seriously. But it had to be good on the science as well. The book that emerged didn't work for everyone, but I at least felt that I was on to something. It suggested a new direction, one which I am exploring further in my new book, which will also be preoccupied with bringing the 'subjective' into 'objective' science.

I think that science writing can take character seriously, and that it can care about subjective experience, emotion, and a self's relationship with the world. It can be about how people make sense of their reality, as well as about the reality itself. It can do all that while still being true to the science. This is particularly true of writing in the cognitive sciences, where people—their minds and their brains—are our focus. Suspenseful narratives don't have to be about things happening and goals being met; they can be about changing emotions, the dizzingly complicated to-and-fro of who knows what and who feels what about whom. There are examples out there already, such as some of the writing in the neuropsychological tradition of Oliver Sacks (which in turn owes a debt to Luria and others). An intriguing recent example is Paul Broks' Into the Silent Land, where the tone is elegiac, reflective, drunk with wonder at the miracle of the (even damaged) human brain. I hope to see more of this kind of writing about science, and dream (like Frith) of reading more books that go beyond the cliches of pop science and give us some of the emotive complexity and richness of literary fiction.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rethinking 'thinking': Modernism and the mind

A quick plug for a talk I'll be giving at the Institute of English Studies in London on Saturday, as part of their Modernism Research Seminar series. My Durham colleague Pat Waugh and I will be speaking on representations of mind in modernism and beyond, with a particular interest in how modernism has been portrayed as taking an 'inward turn', focusing on inner experience at the expense of the bodily, affective and social. For Pat, this is an incorrect reading of the riches of modernist fiction, and she will be using the writings of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and others to show how modernist writers portray mind and experience in ways that are much more emotional and embodied than the caricature of the 'inward turn' suggests.

I will then be offering a perspective on all this from modern psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I'll start by returning to a familiar theme, that of how we need to be more serious about how we define 'thinking'. If we get smarter about how we define this aspect of conscious experience, I will suggest, the modernist project will make more sense. I will argue that a focus on inner experience does not commit us to a kind of Cartesian separation of mind from body. Quite the opposite, in fact, given that 'thinking' (as semiotically mediated cognition) is fundamentally social and affective.

One person who takes a Cartesian view of things is Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon protagonist of Ian McEwan's celebrated novel Saturday:
Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain's fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter became conscious?
Ian McEwan, Saturday (Jonathan Cape, 2005), pp. 254-5. 

Here, the neurosurgeon's materialist philosophy founders on the hard problem of consciousness: the question of how the objective can give rise to the subjective, how mind can emerge from matter. This is a Cartesian framing of the problem, even though the answer, if it ever comes (Perowne is optimistic), may not look Cartesian. 

Pat and I will both be talking about Saturday and how the novel critiques while also implicitly perpetuating the Cartesian myth of the 'inward turn'. I will also be considering the possibility of a new kind of fiction about mind and brain, which is sensitive to the science and the paradoxes of consciousness that it throws up. The talk is in Room G37, Ground Floor, Senate House; see here for directions. All are welcome. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Missing ICOM

The big news in the memory world last week was the fifth International Conference on Memory (ICOM5). More than 800 delegates congregated in York to discuss recent developments in the science of the subject and hear keynotes from such greats as Alan Baddeley, Roberto Cabeza, Richard Morris and Mark Williams. Anyone with a scientific interest in memory would have wanted to be there. I, however, was in Portugal on holiday, and so missed everything except what I could catch up with on Twitter (use the #icom5 hashtag). My sole contribution was chipping in some memory haikus, which was the best I could manage from a thousand miles away (you can find all the entries by looking for the #icom5haiku hashtag).

The conference also attracted some well-deserved media attention. You can read co-organiser Tom Hartley's account of his Newsnight debut (and watch a clip from his appearance) here. You can also listen to a fascinating radio interview with Tom on BBC York.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

How much do you understand about how memory works?

Christian Jarrett at Research Digest has just posted a great piece on professional psychologists' understanding of how memory works. How well do you score? You can test yourself here.
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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The language of the past

There has been a lot of work on the book recently, and so not much time for blogging. But I have been writing about my interviews with my grandmother, Martha, about her earliest memories. In this article for the Guardian, I describe how I took a different tack with my interviewing, and arranged for her to be interviewed in Yiddish.

This blog post for Psychology Today follows up the Guardian piece with some more detail on the science behind the switch of language.

I'll be talking some more on this topic on Woman's Hour on Friday 22 April.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Event at The School of Life

On Monday 14 March I am doing an event on memory at The School of Life. Here's the blurb:

We all rely on our memories to help us to make sense of who we are. But memory is a notorious trickster, prone to all kinds of distortions. Many of us, as we get older, complain that our memories let us down. In this event, author and psychologist Charles Fernyhough draws on the latest research into this endlessly fascinating topic to show how we can harness the slippery power of memory in our everyday lives. He asks whether we can trust childhood memories, and how we can boost our chances of remembering what we want to remember. Our pasts are precious to us, but they are also in some senses unknowable. A deeper understanding of why we remember and forget can give us a better chance of connecting to the truth about who we are.
 You can book for the event by following this link. I hope to see some readers there!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The madeleine moment

This week I've been working on what's become known as Proustian memory, after the famous scene in the first volume of Marcel Proust's masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. Struggling to recapture details of his childhood and youth, the narrator Marcel tastes a piece of a 'petite madeleine' cake steeped in lime-blossom tea, and something very odd happens:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1 (p. 60 of the edition pictured)
What follows is one of the most famous examples of remembering in literature. I am re-reading this extraordinary passage, however, conscious that the reality of the Proust phenomenon may not match up with its popular conceptions. Proust is everywhere in the neuroscience of learning and memory (I myself heard him quoted in undergraduate lectures on the topic). But do these invocations of the great man get Proust right?

Although Marcel's moment with the madeleine ultimately leads to the recapturing of memories of his childhood village of Combray, it is not an instantaneous process. As Douwe Draaisma has pointed out, Marcel actually faces a struggle to make sense of his feelings at the moment of tasting the madeleine. Further tastings don't work, at least not initially. "It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself." (ibid., p. 61). The only way forward lies in deep, repeated plunges of introspection, after which, eventually, something starts to stir: "I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed." (p. 62). 

Even this isn't quite enough, and Marcel has to repeat the examination of his own experience "ten times over" (p. 63). It is as though the gustatory memory needs to make contact with the visual one, and they don't quite speak the same language. Douwe Draaisma concludes that the typical conception of Proustian memory as launching us immediately back into the past isn't quite true to what Proust wrote:
In that sense, the scene with the madeleine is anything but a Proust phenomenon; it took the narrator a great deal of time to associate his spoonful of tea and the crumbs of the cake with remembered images. What emerged from one moment to the next was the association with a feeling, a feeling of delight; the remembered image was still a long way in coming.
Douwe Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older (CUP), p. 33

I did a quick survey on Twitter and Facebook and found that many of my online friends had had Proustian memory experiences. Many of these redolent sensory moments, as you would expect, centred around the smell and taste of food. I am interested to know more about whether people's Proustian memories are instantaneous, as the received wisdom has it, or more drawn-out and effortful. 

It's important to remember that Proust has plenty more to say about memory over the seven volumes of the novel, and that some of Marcel's later sensory encounters with the past have a much more immediate effect. There is some fascinating research on the historical influences on Proust's thinking about memory, and there is also a ton of great new science unpicking whether Proust was right about the power of smell and taste as triggers of memory (more on these topics another time). There is no doubt that the author remained convinced of their power, though, and it is only fitting that Marcel should get the last word:
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1 (pp. 63-64 of the edition pictured)
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