Lynne Malcolm: This is All in the Mind on Radio National I’m Lynne Malcolm.
Elaine McCarthy: Well I’m Elaine McCarthy, how old am I, I’m 85 and we’ve been married for 56 years in July. That’s right isn’t it?
Des McCarthy: I think so. Des McCarthy, I’m 86 and surprisingly enough married the same time
Lynne Malcolm: You’re sure?
Des McCarthy: I think so.
Song: Oh yes, I remember it well.
Lynne Malcolm: Today we remember together. When something’s on the tip of your tongue or has slipped your mind how often do your friends and family come to the rescue and fill in the gaps for you and you might get other help as well as Elaine and Des McCarthy do.
Lynne Malcolm: Do you find that you use lists, diaries, notebooks, calendars to help you remember?
Des McCarthy: Oh yes, that’s an understatement I’ve got to look at my diary every morning when I get up to know what I’m doing that day, that week because without it I’m lost but there again I am involved in a lot of areas at the moment and I must make notes otherwise I don’t remember.
Elaine McCarthy: And we don’t remember people’s names often, I never forget a face but I don’t know their name. I’ve kept all my diaries, you know yearly diaries which I will go back to to find information because the years tend as you get older well, for us I think, years tend to sort of happen very quickly and you can’t quite remember what happened in 2003 for instance so I’ll go back to my 2003 diary to see just what it was that happened..
Lynne Malcolm: And you don’t have to be in your 80s to appreciate a bit of help with your memory as Amanda Barnier finds.
Amanda Barnier: I got an iPhone for my birthday when my daughter was probably less than a year old and she never slept through the night and I was so incredibly tired and I found I used this iPhone because up until I got my iPhone I couldn’t remember appointments, I was never remembering to pay bills, I wouldn‘t remember to pick my son up from school but with my iPhone I could sort of offload all of these tasks that I was having trouble with because I was so tired into my iPhone and it would remind me and it would keep my lists for me and I just found that together my iPhone and I were much more efficient than certainly I was by myself.
So we can think about things in our environment that serve that kind of help for us. Sometimes that can be technology, or it can be objects, it can be calendars, it can be diaries but it can also be other people. It can be social forms of help.
Lynne Malcolm: And it’s this idea of social memory that Associate Professor Amanda Barnier from the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science is particularly interested in. She’s collaborating with a multi disciplinary team of psychologists, scientists and philosophers.
Amanda Barnier: Well basically we’re investigating the relationship between individual memory and group memory or social memory. So memory researchers have mostly focussed on individuals remembering alone but in everyday life we probably as often remember with other people, we remember with our family, our friends, with the people that we work with. In cognitive psychology memory researchers have been very worried about the influence of other people on our memories, they worry that we’re going to influence or infect one another’s memories and that’s been a particular worry in the forensic setting and it’s a reasonable worry because we don’t want people who are giving testimony for instance to report things that they didn’t experience, that they just picked up from other people.
But you know we don’t think that worry necessarily has to extend to all the kind of memory that we do and when we look to our everyday interactions it’s helpful when we look to other people to help us. So in the developmental psychology literature you see parents helping their children to learn how to remember and what’s important and what’s interesting about the events that are going on in their lives. And we think this kind of help we call it scaffolding actually takes place across the lifespan, we look to other people, we remember with them because part of the fun of remembering the past is doing it with other people that were there with you, or weren’t there with you and you can tell about your experiences.
Lynne Malcolm: And what sets this investigation into social memory apart from previous research is that it’s drawing on the field of philosophy as well. Professor John Sutton from Macquarie University is part of a team and he draws on the philosophical idea of an extended mind. That’s the notion that when we’re cognitively processing information we very often reach to things or people outside of ourselves to help us.
John Sutton: So because our biological memory, our brains and our bodies are very dynamic they don’t hold information in a perfect kind of archival crystalline form from the time that we’ve experienced something until the time that we need it again. So because of that kind of plasticity or that fluidity or flexibility of our brains we need to rely to things outside ourselves in order to keep the past in order if you like, to kind of manage the past and to deal with the challenges of remembering and understanding what we’ve done. And so both objects and artefacts including technologies and things out there in the world like buildings as well as digital technologies can be useful for keeping information in order and we go somewhere and we use something in order to remember something when we need to. But also of course other people; so I will often ask a friend or a partner or a colleague about something that’s just slipped my mind temporarily or in a more long term sense I will rely on somebody regularly who I know is an expert in some area of information and to sort of support or buttress my own frail individual memory.
June Stephenson: My name is June Stevenson and Malcolm and I have been married for…
Malcolm Stephenson: 39 years.
June Stephenson: 39 years – thank you yes, and I’m 59.
Malcolm Stephenson: Yes, I’m Malcolm Stevenson also 59. I personally don’t have any concerns about my memory because I think I have a very good memory. Sometimes I’m corrected however because it’s not always 100% accurate.
June Stephenson: Yes, I don’t have any concerns about my memory.
Lynne Malcolm: What about Malcolm’s memory?
June Stephenson: No concerns about his memory, I guess there are times when we do remember things differently, or remember different instances in more clarity and so that’s always been interesting to have that conversation with each other and it comes out, don’t you remember this, or don’t you remember that scenario. Oh yes, that’s right and so we get the whole picture eventually.
Lynne Malcolm: Malcolm and June Stevenson as well as Des and Elaine McCarthy the couple we heard from earlier were all participants in a study conducted by Amanda Barnier’s team. In order to find out more about how we rely on each other for our memories they decided to interview couples who’ve been together for a long time. Celia Harris, a post doctoral fellow at Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science, interviewed older couples in their homes to find out how successful they were at remember various kinds of information from their past, both individually and together. Here’s a recording of an interview with June and Malcolm Stevenson. Their task was to collaborate on a story about a safari trip they’d had several years before.
Celia Harris: This is session two with June and Malcolm. So you’ve got a minute from now.
Malcolm Stephenson: So this was on our moose safari in North Conway. I was very keen to see moose somewhere when we were away and the fact that we didn’t ever see them during the day I was very pleased that we got onto the night time safari. But I recall that it was me who wanted to see the moose and that’s why we went to North Conway. There you go. I also remember that we were not at one point in time not very happy because we didn’t think we were even going to achieve a safari and then that’s when the bed and breakfast owner said to us that he would work hard to try and make it happen and he did make it happen and then at one point we thought it was just going to be the two of us on a private tour and then it ended up being a full bus of a dozen or 15 people.
I remember pulling into that little area and I recall him being a little concerned because it was private property remember with a big sign which said do not enter, prosecution may occur.
June Stephenson: And yes, and then he was in his very well marked moose safari coach which would have been very easy to locate again should they have wished to take action.
Malcolm Stephenson: And then a police car went past and he wouldn’t go in until the police car had disappeared.
June Stephenson: Oh OK, I didn’t understand the significance of that, I didn’t understand that at the time. And yes our going in there and having the big spotlights to find the moose and where they were. The first time we went in we didn’t see the other one did we? Wasn’t it the second time we called in that we saw the two of them? The first time there was just the one over straight ahead and the mother wasn’t…
Malcolm Stephenson: And the mother didn’t seem to be present.
June Stephenson: We didn’t see the mother that time.
Malcolm Stephenson: And I remember being frustrated that I could not take a good photograph of it.
Lynne Malcolm. Celia Harris observed many couples telling their stories and performing various memory tasks. Here’s what she found.
Celia Harris: It was quite interesting because I was quite ideological in a way about the research and I thought we would definitely see that everybody collaborated really well and showed strong benefits of socially shared remembering. And in fact we didn’t see that, what was really interesting was that there was strong individual differences. So some couples collaborated really effectively and performed much better when they were together than when they were apart and other couples disrupted each other and didn’t remember together effectively at least on certain tasks. So the individual differences became the thing to explain and what I did was look at the processes that occurred while they discussed and while they shared remembering. So we recorded the conversations and we coded each phrase that was said for what it contained and we looked for what kinds of different ways of interacting with each other predicted memory performance.
The biggest predictor of whether people helped or hindered each other was the way that they tried to cue each other’s memory so using lots of cues, trying to remind each other, engaging with the task of sharing, genuinely sharing the task was very helpful for memory. Whereas other things like correcting each other for instance was not helpful for memory. So they were very specific details of the interaction that predicted what the outcome was.
Lynne Malcolm: June and Malcolm Stephenson found that being involved in the memory study made them more conscious of the way they worked together.
Malcolm Stephenson: I remember that a little bit like we have here today already I would say something and then June would add to it in terms of detail or vice versa. So between the two of us those that were researching got this complete picture because we were able to bounce backwards and forwards giving the specificity that one person alone wasn’t recalling.
June Stephenson: Because I remembered the relationship aspect of it because it was to do with the mother and a young calf.
Malcolm Stephenson: And I remembered the fact that we were breaking the law and going through this sign that said trespassers prosecuted and my memory is that June hadn’t even kind of clicked with that until I shared that and then she remembered it again.
June Stephenson: I wondered if I rescripted it since then to say ah yes, well obviously that was what happened because we did see the do not enter sign and that’s what we did do and so I’ve re-remembered it according to what you’ve said because it made so much sense.
Malcolm Stephenson: Yes, I think that could well have happened.
Lynne Malcolm: In these memory tests with couples Celia Harris noticed that they were using quite specific techniques to help each other remember things.
Celia Harris: Some couples could cue each other really effectively in quite novel and idiosyncratic ways so sometimes they would say you remember the first half and I’ll remember the second half, or you know, I know about tools, you know about clothes so would split it up according to their understanding of each other’s expertise.
One guy even made a little symbol with his hands for each of the words that he then re-enacted during the remembering to try and remind his wife of what the words were. So even on that basic word list task you could see evidenced that cueing strategies were helpful and then definitely once we got into the more personally relevant tasks people could really use their shared knowledge and their shared history to cue each other. So using cues that were completely idiosyncratic to the person and really not very meaningful to us as interviewers.
And I think that’s really the key to where the benefits came from because when you’re interviewing somebody by themselves you can ask them over and over again do you know any more about that, you know what else can you tell me about that and they are really general cues but it takes somebody who knows them and who experiences the event with them to come in say one word like egg and all of a sudden there’s a whole memory there. And so this is kind of idiosyncratic cues that come from their shared experiences that’s just something that nobody else can provide for them. But definitely having a lot of shared experiences and a lot of shared history seem to be helpful and also kind of a shared acknowledgement of each other’s expertise on tasks where one person was definitely the expert and the other person didn’t know so much that really hampered successful collaboration because the job tended to be all off loaded onto one person.
And so in tasks were their expertise was perceived as more shared and more distributed then we saw more successful collaboration. So from this first study it was really exciting because it was for us a demonstration that the benefits of shared remembering are possible and certainly for experimental psychology this is extremely new and extremely different from every other finding in the literature.
Lynne Malcolm: Celia Harris from the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science. You’re with All in the Mind on RN. Radio Australia and online. I’m Lynne Malcolm and today we’re considering how we help each other with our memories. How we remember socially. Elaine and Des McCarthy are in their mid 80’s and they’ve been together for nearly 56 years.
So how reliant do you think you are on each other for remembering?
Elaine McCarthy: A lot I would say especially now as we’re getting older.
Des McCarthy: I would agree with that.
Elaine McCarthy: And I think I remember things better than Des – sorry darling but I think I do.
Des McCarthy: I don’t disagree with that you know you do trigger remembrance of things that happened probably more than I do but yeah, it’s good.
Elaine McCarthy: I can remember so many instances so clearly especially when it comes to the children, what’s happened over the years and it’s kind of imprinted on my brain.
Des McCarthy: I would say that it’s as I say the detail. We might be commenting about meeting someone in the past and Elaine would say yes, she had a hat on and a green dress and such and such and my comment was yes, she was dressed, I knew that. I would not have any idea of those details but I would probably remember what we talked about, or the occasion, why we were there, were we travelling, what’s happening, yeah.
Elaine McCarthy: Yes that is an interesting difference that we have I think.
Lynne Malcolm: Amanda this work seems to indicate there’s quite a potential benefit to be had between couples, particularly long term couples for their memories. But what about those people who aren’t in long term relationships?
Amanda Barnier: Yes, exactly so not everybody has a spouse, a long term spouse so one possibility might be with family members, other family members. But of course then there might be older adults who don’t have any close family around them. So if we could just sort of identify the tools and techniques as sort of the key to helping support memory with collaboration it might be something that we could train carers in. If we could find a way that people who don’t know us so well could tap into those rich cues then that might be the key to helping them.
Lynne Malcolm: And for those of us who do rely on people close to us and various tools to jog our memories what happens when we lose our helpful technologies or more seriously we lose our loved ones?
Amanda Barnier: I think it would be devastating. At one point I wanted to have my iPhone actually sort of surgically connected to my person but it’s pretty trivial compared to what happens to people lose things that are really important potentially to their cognition. Sally Drayson from the Australian National University talks about what happens when people are moved out of their environments, out of their homes with their artefacts that surround them, with their memorabilia and are moved into controlled nursing environments which obviously will offer them excellent health care but that move away from the kind of environment that’s scaffolded their mental processing might well be devastating.
David Baloda is a colleague of ours at the University of Washington in St Louis has drawn a similar comparison to what happens when well integrated people, people who have been married for a long time and develop very well integrated systems for working together and remembering together when one of them suddenly dies and he’s talked about a couple of cases in his own family where the spouse left behind has suddenly, you know cognitively declined very, very rapidly. And he likens it really to losing a part of their own brain,that person who they relied on to help them remember suddenly is gone and they’re not nearly as efficient as they were before.
Lynne Malcolm: So if we accept that it’s part of human nature to rely on things and each other, to remember significant aspects of our lives, doesn’t this mean that our memories are always potentially vulnerable? Philosophy Professor John Sutton.
John Sutton: Absolutely but I suppose our project has started from the idea that memory is always vulnerable and always changing anyway whether we’re relying heavily on other people or on objects like the iPhone or not. And so what one of the philosophers whose work has been very heavily influential in this project Andy Clark who’s one of the people who’s coined this notion of the extended mind, that the mind can extend beyond the scale outside the brain, and Andy Clark argues that we are kind of natural born cyborgs, that’s how he puts it, that it’s part of our human nature to do hook up with other people, other instruments, technologies and so on.
So yes of course we’re vulnerable to losing things, to our technologies being destroyed, or you know in the case of other people of course we lose touch with people, people die and they in a sense from our point of view they take some of our mind or memory with them. So yes we are kind of hostage to fortune, we’re vulnerable to changes in the environment but that’s just how we work, you know we’re kind of unlike other animals in the extent to which it’s part of our nature to rely on objects, technologies and the social world as well.
Lynne Malcolm: And I supposed there’s also the possibility that our minds are changing the way they our minds operate; could that be a problem?
John Sutton: It can be a problem absolutely, I mean from a scientific and philosophical point of view I suppose it’s more immediately just fascinating to try and observe historical changes in sometimes really short historical periods or cultural changes in the kinds of technologies and objects that people have accessible to them. I’m certainly interested with another hat on with the history of our reliance on artefacts, technologies and on the social nature of memory for as long as modern humans have been using external symbol systems to remember from the time that we started to draw paintings on the walls of caves and to carve notches in sticks and to tie little knots in pieces of string when we’re relying on external artefacts. And that’s something that’s kind of an external supplement, or a mere trigger, or a mere cue, that’s actually part of our memory. That’s the controversial philosophical claim I supposed that’s embedded in our view and yes, absolutely, it means over time and in different places and context human memory actually changes, not just its support but in its nature as well.
Lynne Malcolm: So just turning back to the interviews that have been done with the older couples where they prop up each other’s memories what sort of benefits do you see this philosophical perspective might bring to the everyday lives of people in that way?
John Sutton: Firstly the immediate aim I think is just to point out to researchers and to those interested in caring for those with cognitive decline and decline in memory how much we rely on other people. So there’s a very important descriptive role to our work, things that are hard to study scientifically because they’re complex interactions between people who know each other for a long time which often occur in quite specific context like in the home in which we’ve been undertaking interviews with a number of long standing couples. And just capturing and trying to understand how people ordinarily operate together and talk about the past and rely on each other to help them remember appointments and to remember how events in their shared past went. So just trying to work out how we cue each other, how we are constantly reminding each other of something new, how a little bit of a story reminds me of the whole thing and I sort of get vivid rush of emotions or images about something that happened. So that’s for me the first thing in just trying to describe just how heavily we rely on other people.
In terms of philosophy’s possible impact on a more applied and practical level I don’t want to go too quickly. I think it’s a matter of working really carefully with a large range of people who use many different kinds of objects and technologies and whose level of memory capacity is very different. And once we try to see the range and variety of ways that people actually manage the past and try to rely on each other in different ways then we’ll get a sense of well in some cases as memory changes with age what kind of changes in the balance of our use of resources might help people.
We know there are many people who don’t rely so heavily on each other in order to remember the past who quite successfully created a kind of purely kind of individual system which might also involve objects and technologies and diaries but not necessarily. I mean some people just keep everything in their heads and that’s perfectly fine and perfectly normal it’s just that not everybody works like that and we’re just trying to document and describe those differences.
Lynne Malcolm: So what are the implications of this work?
Amanda Barnier: The first implication I think is just thinking about memory in a completely new way so memory researchers have you know for very good reasons and for quite a long time focussed on what we can do individually but we think this pushes a whole new approach to thinking about people as they remember in their everyday life. So that’s one implication. The second implication is to have a more positive view of memory, we often focus a lot motivated by the sort of criminal context on what people get wrong, what they can’t remember, what they fail at. But in fact I think we’re turning that on its head to show how well people can do and how well they can do when they’re together.
The third view I think is that it’s changing our view of ageing. We often think of people, older people especially remembering alone that they’re starting to lose their memory, they’re losing the details but no, if you test them in the systems in which they live that is with their spouses, with their families they actually do remarkably well. And the fourth and I think one of the most important implications is what it might mean for memory and ageing and for memory decline.
So memory decline in the form of dementia is one of the leading forms of disability in Australians aged over 65, it’s going to be a massive problem in the coming decades. The ideas that we are starting to test point us to different ways in which we might be able to compensate or protect people against the cost of those kinds of diseases. So if people in being prompted, or helped to remember more with the people that are important to them, or even with carers who can help them to remember things from the past and do it in a very structured and you know vivid sort of way might help to offset those cognitive declines and slow the progress of disease perhaps, lower their risk of disease. And it’s early days yet but I think there are really exciting possibilities that we can explore.
Lynne Malcolm: Amanda Barnier and before that John Sutton from Macquarie University’s Centre for Cognitive Science in Sydney. Before we go, let’s hear again from our partners in memory after participating in the study.
Des McCarthy: I found the whole experience very interesting. It showed how much Elaine and I our memories do agree on 56 years of living together and I think it must be tragic for elderly couples when dementia comes into play with one of them and suddenly there’s that blank wall where one partner will say oh darling do you remember such and such, no I wasn’t there and please God it never happens to us.
Elaine McCarthy: And that’s something I find difficult, I have two sisters who have died and often things come up in my memory which Des doesn’t know anything about and I can’t ask them because I don’t have a direct line. I find that difficult when you can’t turn to somebody who was with you when such and such a thing happened, that’s gone, that memory. Some of it is there for me but not totally which is a shame.
Des McCarthy: Oh well, that’s life.
Elaine McCarthy: Well that’s true, yes.
Malcolm Stephenson: What they’re doing here with this particular research is fascinating for me to realise that human relationships can impact the capacity of the mind to recall and to rediscover aspects and elements that have been stored away but yet you haven’t got the immediate recall back to them until you hear someone else prompting it. And so that’s a huge enrichment for me in terms of life’s journey.
Lynne Malcolm: And thanks to Malcolm and June Stephenson and Elaine and Des McCarthy for delving into their memories today for us. What are your experiences of social memory? Leave your comments on the website abc.net.au/radionational and choose All in the Mind in the program list. You’ll find more information there, photos transcripts and you can listen to all our programs from there too. Thanks for joining me today on All in the Mind the sound engineer was David Lawford, I’m Lynne Malcolm catch you at the same time next week. Bye for now.