The Art and Science of Memory

Why the study of autobiographical memory must be multidisciplinary.

Posted Mar 18, 2013

If you’ve followed this blog from its beginnings in 2009, you’ll know that it’s covered a wide territory. From initial interests in developmental psychology (I started it when I was coming out of a period of close scrutiny of my own daughter’s psychological development), the focus has moved on to the science of autobiographical memory: the memories we have for the events of our own lives. Among other things, I’ve looked at lifelong links between language and memorymedieval techniques for memory enhancement, and the social factors that shape memory in childhood.

In all of these inquiries one thing has been clear to me. To understand autobiographical memory in its full richness, you need to get at it from the inside: as a subjective experience, as well as something that can be studied in the psychology or neuroscience lab. You need to ask what having a memory is like, and not be satisfied with purely objective descriptions of the phenomenon. Here's how I put it in my book, Pieces of Light (published in the US tomorrow): 

There is, of course, more to remembering than neural systems. I think that if we are really to unpick the mysteries of memory, we need to put the story back into the science. One of my aims in this book is to capture the first-person nature of memory, the rememberer’s capacity to reinhabit the recalled moment and experience it again from the inside. The great memory scientist Endel Tulving called this quality of memory ‘autonoetic consciousness’, and explaining it is one of the biggest challenges for memory researchers. The scientific need for replicable experimental findings has meant that the personal, subjective quality of memory has often been ignored, although this tendency has begun to be redressed in recent years, with a new movement towards exploring the qualitative and the narrative. Memory researchers now spend more time getting to know their participants’ individual stories, whether they concern the beguiling confabulations spun by those whose memory systems have failed them, or the sensually rich ‘first memories’ produced when people are interviewed about their very early childhoods. I want to do the same thing, letting the stories speak for themselves in illustrating the fragile and complex truths of memory. [amazon 0062237896]

These are some of the reasons why, to my mind, the study of memory requires a multidisciplinary perspective. A theme that emerged for me when I was writing Pieces of Light was that many of the current issues for the cognitive neuroscience of autobiographical memory have been prefigured by the insights of writers and artists. I read Marcel Proust on the power of the senses to trigger memories—and discovered that he wasn't as much of a pioneer in this matter as some have suggested. For example, the author Kenneth Grahame prefigured Proust's observation in his children's classic Wind in the Willows, published several years before Proust's work. As the author Richard Holmes has pointed out1, if Mole's experience isn't a Proustian madeleine moment, it's hard to imagine what is:

It was one of those mysterious fairy calls from out of the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, while as yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recover the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him.

In the writings of the novelist A. S. Byatt, I found subtle phenomenological distinctions among kinds of early memory. I also found clues to the fragmentary nature of early memory in the recollections of the painter Georgia O'Keeffe:

My first memory is of the brightness of light—light all around. I was sitting among pillows on a quilt on the ground—very large white pillows. The quilt was a cotton patchwork of two different kinds of material—white with very small red stars spotted over it quite close together, and black with a red and white flower on it. I was probably eight or nine months old2.

This very early memory counts as an example of what researchers now call 'fragment memories': isolated bits of memory that lack full autobiographical context, and which may constitute nothing more than a feeling or an image.

With their preoccupations with characters' motivations and feelings, novelists are particularly helpful in showing how emotion shapes and reshapes memory. The main protagonist in Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending finds that his changing emotions about his former lover's parents trigger new memories of their relationship. Phenomena like this fit with scientific theory but have not yet been brought into the lab. Researchers looking for insights into how memory works will find that time spent reading fiction is time well spent.

I’m not the first to recognise the value of artistic perspectives in understanding memory. One book I always recommend on this topic is Daniel L. Schacter's Searching for Memory, which contains many thoughtful meditations on how memory phenomena have been depicted in works of visual art. Artists themselves are drawing on research in cognitive neuroscience in shaping their explorations of how individuals are defined by and define their memories. To give one example, London-based artist Shona Illingworth worked closely with cognitive neuroscientist Martin A. Conway in creating her piece The Watch Man, in which a traumatized mind struggles to reassemble fragments of its past.

It is one thing to draw on literary and artistic works to illustrate memory phenomena; it is another to claim that their careful study can actually enrich the science. In the realms of academia, just such multidisciplinary approaches are beginning to bear fruit. In the 2011 book The Memory Process, contributors from psychology, neuroscience, and the humanities explore how advances in neuroscience can enrich the study of artworks, and vice versa. From co-editor Suzanne Nalbantian's introduction: '[Paul] Ricoeur, a philosopher of hermeneutics and literary theory, predicted that the overriding orientation of neuroscience in the future would be to juxtapose objective experimentally recorded activities with the "incredible richness" of a "lived biology."'3. The challenge now is for academics from different disciplines to work together in developing interdisciplinary techniques for bringing this 'incredible richness' into the lab.

A similar ethos motivates the recently-established Memory Network, which brings together academics from the humanities and sciences along with writers and artists to explore multidisciplinary connections among subjective and objective conceptions of memory. In one recent project, for example, London-based neuroscientist Hugo Spiers has been working with novelist Will Self to scan the latter's brain as he navigates a virtual Soho.

Such activities promise to be useful in addressing aspects of the memory experience that hard science has not yet found tractable: what exactly people are experiencing when they generate memories in the MRI scanner; the role of various interconnected brain systems in generating the so-called 'feeling of remembering'; which phenomenological changes in memory are involved in amnesia and normal ageing; and so on. When I came to write about memory, it was quickly clear to me that it had to be done by looking at memory from the inside: in terms of specific memories of specific events for specific people. Individuals and their narratives, in other words. When we want to understand memory, it's helpful to start by telling stories. 

1Richard Holmes, ‘A Meander through Memory and Forgetting’, in Harriet Harvey Wood and A. S. Byatt (eds.), Memory: An Anthology, London, Chatto & Windus, 2008.

2O’Keeffe, G. (1977). Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: Penguin. (Original work published 1976).

3Nalbantian, S., Matthews, P. M., and McClelland, J. L. (eds.). (2011). The memory process: Neuroscientific and humanistic perspectives. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p1.