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


Author: tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

One thought on “ICOM and the Quirks of Memory”

  1. I thought you did great – it was a LONG interview. As someone who helps people prepare for interviews I occasionally like to do them myself to put myself in clients’ shoes and as a reminder that it’s natural to be nervous and it’s not as easy as I worry I sometimes make it sound. The last radio interview I did I spent four hours’ doing my own interview prep and was STILL nervous (although this was apparent only to me). Then last week at a writers’ conference I emailed my first draft of the piece I had to read to the remote printer and had to edit and rewrite AS I WAS READING (all this to set a good example for younger writers in my workshop who weren’t yet comfortable sharing their work with others). My hat’s off to the world’s naturally good spokespeople and to those who actually enjoy doing interviews. For those of us who don’t enjoy them, I now highly recommend self-hypnosis or a deep breathing session immediately prior to the interview. What was fascinating about both tests for me was that they occur at the intersection between neuroscience and language and touch on something that’s always fascinated me as an avid reader of fiction – emotional truth vs fact and the relative values we give to both.

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