Today I went out to the Uni of Edinburgh Veterinary School to run a session with the staff there, the brief being to get people to think about something a bit outside their normal routine. Thanks to Jessie Paterson and Sharon Boyd for setting this up.
I had asked everyone to bring a photo from a year or two ago to the session. It could be in print, on a smartphone or an iPad, as long as they could access it. During the session, each of the 8 participants then told a story relating to the event depicted in the photo which proved to be an interesting exercise in itself. There were rich sensory experiences involving food, music and emotions. There were connections between the time the photo was taken and much earlier experiences. There were also memories of important family bonding experiences.
Next, I asked them to think of a story for which there are no photos. This was visibly more difficult, the cognitive strain written on most of their faces. Largely, this turned out to be because it was difficult to think of an event at which they knew no photos had been taken. I suspect it may also have been more difficult to know when non-photographed events took place since photographs can be referenced against others in a collection – but this is based more on speculation than on the statements of the participants.
Finally, I discussed my research so far. This led to an interesting discussion around false memory, particularly in relation to people with Alzheimer’s Disease and the general unreliability of the anecdotal evidence of memory produced in conversation.
An interesting point that came up was the ethical issues around encouraging people with Alzheimer’s Disease to construct potentially inaccurate memories based on information in photographs. In other words, if they are given photographs which contain clues of their activity, will this lead to confabulation if they are otherwise unable to recall what happened? With the caveat that I am not a specialist in Alzheimer’s Disease or any memory impairment, I would say the following: it is important to be mindful of this possibility – in some cases the benefit to self esteem and social functioning of remembering something would outweigh any negative impacts of inaccurate memory, whereas in others misremembering might create significant problems. Finally, I would say that this is probably an extension of a universal phenomenon: that all episodic memories are, to an extent, false due to the reconstructive nature of remembering that is influenced by current perspective, previous remembering, mood, setting, etc.
Anyway, this was an enjoyable and informal session which I would happily repeat with others.