Alexander Brown reflects on the recent Memory Matters event in collaboration with UCL Neuroscience.
If I wanted to define ‘Memory Matters: The Art and Science of the Brain’ with a quote, it would be the words of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen in “Alice Through the Looking Glass”: ‘It is a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.’ In short, it was too fine an evening to be terse about.
In the erudite setting of the British Library, sheltered from familiar London screeches, the event appropriately began with an example of procedural memory, the tango. The passionate and strangely grave dancers were scientist and artist collaborators Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins, whose theme was mental time travel. Clive introduced memory as a subjective yet shared experience allowing exploration of the past, prediction of the future, and the envisioning of imaginary worlds. Nicky then spoke of mental time travel in science. The hippocampus, the hub of declarative memory, was introduced, and the consequences of its destruction portrayed through a heartrending video interview of musician and amnesiac Clive Wearing. With only a moment-to-moment consciousness, the absence of the permanent marker of the past abandoned his present to mere thoughts, passing away one by one into oblivion. This man, who had no memory of having eaten, tasted or touched, nevertheless stated: “consciousness has to involve me”. This was followed by the story of a study on caching food in that remarkable bird, the jay. When left in either a ‘breakfast room’ or a ‘hungry room’ over a series of nights, the jay was five times more likely to store food in the ‘hungry room’ the next morning. This demonstrated the jays ability to plan for the future, bettering small children in that activity.
Clive then spoke on the role of mental time travel for the artist. As Carroll alluded to, humans are the only species that allow time to move in two directions, via thought. This process is coloured by our culture, history, and mistakes. Sir Frederick Bartlett, experimenting on subjects asked to recall fragments of Canadian Indian folklore, revealed how our memories can rewrite history according to self-serving preconceptions. The Moustachio Quartet, a tetralogy of novels penned by the speaker himself, mines mental time travel for ‘tools in the artist’s toolkit’. The four books can be read in any order, giving the reader power to distort and reinterpret the action of the novels just as our imagination or the order of events might reshape our reality. This phenomenological approach to memory, in which phones and teacups are mere extensions of our being, is both individualistic and also shared, and from it spring the ideas (and prejudices) of society. Memory becomes our social organization. As was discussed following an insightful question from the audience, this collective vision is one of many possible visions, equally as subjective as the individual one, and certainly less sincere.
Three breakout rooms were on show during the interval. The first, ‘Perceptions of Dementia’, hosted by the Alzheimer’s Society challenged assumptions. Film and discussion provided the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone with dementia, enduring the difficulty of making a cup of tea and desperation on busy London streets. The second, ‘Forgetting to Fly’, celebrated the fruit fly in modern neuroscience, displaying common tests of locomotion and one using the flies’ moreish tastes for cider vinegar and rotting banana to test its memory. This room was hosted by early career researchers from UCL’s Institute of Healthy Ageing. The third, ‘Voices of Science’, provided an online collective, subjective memory of oral histories from past greats from British science and technology.
On returning to the lecture theatre, ‘I Remember Things’ showcased the talents of Chris Rawlins, who, treating memory as a ‘muscle’ to be trained, was able to recall street names and places in London based only on map grid references given to him by members of the audience. He followed this with a demonstration of a memory-improving technique, and some fantastic feats of photographic memory.
Finally Hugo Spiers brought us back ‘from tap dancing to facts’, giving an overview of the ‘abnormal’ brains of London taxi drivers, whose posterior hippocampus swells as they commit London’s many streets to memory. We learnt that the posterior hippocampus is more active the greater its options, such as when stepping out onto a sunlit courtyard without anywhere in particular to go. A very elegant experiment on rats was described, where the rodents were shown rice beyond a barrier in a particular inaccessible location. Following sleep, they tested the frequency at which they later made the correct turning towards the area with the rice, now available. The results showed that rats – quite splendidly – appear to dream of the future, emphasizing the role the past plays in planning ahead. The rat creates a map of the future with echoes of the past, simulating its future journey, like London cabbies, in the hippocampus.
The amnesiac Clive Wearing obsessed over possessing ‘the captured thought’, among the many that forever evaded his consciousness. In Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée, across an oneiric sequence of black-and-white stills, the main character rejects the ‘real’ world in favour of a memory with the woman of his dreams. Without spoiling a wonderful film further, I wondered how different and yet how identical the two wishes were, and how bound we are to memory and identity, which, if not entirely mythological beasts, transcend our reason and science. Making these connections was of course why we all presented ourselves at the doorstep in the first place. I congratulate the British Library, UCL Neuroscience and all involved on a very exciting effort at bridging art and science.
Alexander F Brown (PhD student, Department of Molecular Neuroscience, UCL Institute of Neurology)
PS. If you missed out on this event then stay tuned! A highlights video will be available soon