Imagining the past, remembering the future: Charles Fernyhough at the Royal Institution

Baby in the MirrorCharles Fernyhough wrote one of my favourite popular science books, The Baby in the Mirror, a moving account of his daughter Athena’s first three years; he also gave an equally interesting talk based on the book at the Royal Institution back in March 2010.

Pieces of LightHis new book, Pieces of Light: the new science of memory, also uses his family’s experiences to illustrate the subject, and last night he was back at the RI.

I wasn’t too sure about the first ten minutes, though: it appeared pointless, and apparently was supposed to be funny; it involved Paul McCaffrey not knowing what words like ecphoric and liminal mean, and it was filmed for a new series for BBC3.

Charles Fernyhough, however, knows what words like ecphoric and autonoetic mean, and he’s able to communicate the meaning of obscure and difficult concepts to the uninitiated, explaining how the sense of self is constructed from memories, and how language is a necessity for the laying down of memories – the suggestion being that this is the reason that most adults’ earliest memories tend to be from around the age of 3½.

Memories are not like a DVD but are constructed for the present like a collage, with different elements pulled together from the different areas of the brain. And memories can be influenced by other things, like remembering pictures, and remembering memories of remembering. Memories can be constructed artificially too, with over 20% of adults having non-believed memories, i.e. they have a memory that they know to be false.

The talk helped elucidate some questions I have had about some of my memories. For a long time I remembered an event which I was sure must have happened when I was not much more than a toddler, a memory of me running out of our front door and along a concrete path. Then, a few years ago, I realised that I was remembering this as an observer, from the point of view of an adult watching, and so I decided I must have seen a photo at some time which was what I was recalling, rather than the actual event. However, apparently this is common in recalling events and is called an ‘observer memory’ (as opposed to a ‘field memory’).

I had a memory which I knew to be in my very early childhood, not much more than a vague sense of lying (I thought in my pram) watching leaves moving in the wind with the sky behind, framed by what I always assume was the pram hood, and I had long concluded that it was not a real memory at all as I thought it implausible that I could remember something from that early in my life; however, early memories are often fragmentary, just a flash, and apparently A S Byatt has a memory that is very similar to mine. I also have a very strong, but very indistinct memory, which is just of being in a car and looking out the window and seeing what is going past (nothing more than that, not even what was going past). I’m pleased to know that even if they’re not real memories, they at least quite possibly are.

Involuntary memories are interesting things – Proustian memories that are triggered by a chance sensory stimulus such as a smell. He described them as being very disconcerting, almost unpleasant, to some people; in my experience of this it was very physical, almost like being punched in the stomach, and taking some time to settle down again.

Concluding the talk, he said that as we can edit memories, we can rewrite the self; and that one of the main functions of memory is to plan for the future. I’m planning to finish some of the books I am currently reading quite soon so that I can start reading

During the Q&A session after the talk a young member of the audience was given the microphone and asked: ‘Daddy, you still haven’t answered my question.’ It turned out that Isaac, Charles Fernyhough’s son, had recently caught his first fish, which had triggered a memory in Charles of catching his first fish. The question was, what colour was the fish, and he can’t remember. Later in the Q&A someone suggested that the probability was that the fish was silver; the next time Isaac asks what colour the fish was, Charles will almost certainly remember it as silver (but at least he will know why he does).

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2 Responses to Imagining the past, remembering the future: Charles Fernyhough at the Royal Institution

  1. trishalewis says:

    Smell sensory triggering is certainly very effective in reminiscence therapy with those with a dementia – and I certainly understand the power of smells to spark memory moments – for me it is …newly mown grass ( I don’t think I am alone on this) and childhood summer evenings playing out… Cheating bedtime ! I have a block of carbolic soap which initiates loads of memories in my sessions – tin baths to wash day stories ! Carbollic soap for me – well combine it with izal loo paper and I am back at junior school !!

  2. trishalewis says:

    Carbollic soap certainly triggers an array of anecdotes during my reminiscence sessions (often with those with a dementia). Tin baths, wash day…. And for me – well combine it with scent of izal loo paper and I am back in junior school !!

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