Five Minutes of Fame.

It’s the end of a very busy and exciting week in which I helped organize a huge conference on memory at the University of York. The ICOM conference was, we think, the biggest ever specialist conference on the topic, and we had over 800 delegates from around the world, including many of the most famous names in memory research. It was an exhilerating  experience, the culmination of months of planning and very rewarding indeed, although very hard work.

One of the personal highlights was being asked to appear on Newsnight, one of Britain’s top current affairs programmes which regularly attracts an audience of around 600,000 people despite airing at 10.30pm – well past my normal bedtime!

The nice thing about this is that it gave me the chance to talk about some of the fascinating research we’d been hearing about this week. However, there were so many exciting new ideas discussed at ICOM that I can’t say I felt very confident that I would be able to make much sense of it. Luckily I wasn’t alone and on the way to London I got to know Donna Rose Addis who was on the show with me.

Donna Rose is well known for her research on the way that memory provides us with a sense of self – the sense that you are the same person today as yesterday and that even though the world around you changes something inside stays the same; the ‘you’ inside you. She also works on links between remembering the past and imagining the future. It turns out that these are not as different as you might think and rely on similar systems in the brain. So imagination involves a lot of memory and vice versa. These rather fascinating ideas are typical of the sort of thing we heard about during ICOM – in so many ways memory is not the way you think! Donna is a proper memory expert and recently won a major prize in her native New Zealand. She’s spent the year travelling around the world visiting the top labs around the world. Thankfully she is also a really nice person, and we had a good chance to chat about what we might talk about, which made me feel a bit more confident.

Quite apart from the scientific context I was rather starstruck, and I am not sure how successful I was at feigning nonchalance. The most thrilling thing was to be inside TV Centre – after growing up watching so many programmes that were made there, being there feels like meeting an old and revered film star. It was really such an overwhelming experience that I haven’t had time to fully digest it and it might be worth another post or an update later.

I was only on the screen for a few minutes, and it flew by very quickly, so it was difficult to say anything at all subtle or complicated. To be honest I didn’t know what was going to come out of my mouth until I heard it. Fortunately when I watched it back afterwards it seemed to make sense and I managed to make some worthwhile points. I felt as if I’d been dropped straight in at the deep end and had somehow managed to keep my head above the surface and found myself miraculously treading water. I wouldn’t be afraid to do it again, and if Andy Warhol was right, I still have about 10 minutes of fame left.

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