ICOM and the Quirks of Memory

I’ve been involved in preparations for ICOM5 a major international conference on memory taking place in York next week. As part of this I was asked to do a live radio interview with BBC York, and this is what happened:

BBC York Interview on ICOM5 and memory by TomHartley

The interviewer is Elly Fiorentini and it’s the same programe where my I’m A Scientist friend Jo Buckley appears regularly, so I knew I’d be in safe hands, but felt rather very nervous. However, I was quite pleased with how it went. As well as talking about the conference, I tried to demonstrate false memories, using a standard method called the Deese Roediger McDermott or DRM procedure. The aim is to remember a shortlist of words. You can try it yourself (it’s around the middle of the interview), and it at least worked on Elly (spolier alert: don’t click the previous link if you want to try out the test yourself).

I should note that for reasons of copyright and good taste I decided to edit out Wet Wet Wet’s version of With A Little Help from My Friends* and a trailer which came between presentation and testing. So we weren’t working under laboratory conditions, and Elly had a longer delay between hearing the listand being tested than in the recording.

False memories brought up the topic of  eyewitness testimony and its failings – luckily I had read up on this just beforehand and consulted Annelies Vredeveldt who is just finishing her PhD on the topic. She alerted me to this article which I mentioned – flawed eyewitness testimony plays a part in 7/10 wrongful convictions (where DNA evidence has exonerated the person originally convicted). I didn’t get a chance to mention Annelies’ name or her own work which is very interesting – she’s shown that in some circumstances simply closing your eyes could improve the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.

I also tried to demonstrate the “tip of the tongue phenomenon” where you can’t recall a word which you know. It feels as if it’s “on the tip of your tongue” and you may be able to say which letter the word begins with and how many syllables. To produce the effect in the lab, you can use “phonological blocking”. This happens when you present a similar sounding word just as the person is trying to retrieve a “tricky” word from memory. Again you can try this for yourself as I give an example in the interview.

Asked to name some “hot topics” in memory I talked about reconsolidation and the role of sleep. And rambling on I also got started (unexpectedly) on the role dreams might play – referring to this paper which I read a few weeks ago.

In the end being on the radio was fun and I was surprised what I could remember on the spur of the moment. I was lucky because Elly asked really interesting questions and was very friendly which gave me some confidence.

*My version is much better