Thursday, 3 November 2011

Catherine Loveday: An insurance policy

The truth is that I don’t know yet whether psychology has come to my rescue, or at least to what extent, but I think I have been encouraged by my experiences to take out something of an insurance policy. On a train journey home a few months ago, after a conversation with a particularly wonderful memory patient, I was reflecting on the massive impact that amnesia has. I know that I am a psychologist, a musician, a mother etc. but what I had come to appreciate is that it is not enough to just know this; all the personal specific memories of becoming and being these things are absolutely central to my sense of who I am. Similarly, the relationships I have with my family, friends and colleagues depend crucially on my memories of shared time with those people.

It’s tough to watch the struggle people face when these memories are torn from them but through my research I have learned that even in the most severe cases of memory loss it is often possible to trigger some episodic remembering. Experience and a growing body of evidence, suggests that this is most likely when an individual is cued by something that has been recorded in some way by themselves: a personal diary entry, a photo that they took, even a trivial piece of memorabilia. Even when these things are not powerful enough to provoke a memory, the fact that they were recorded by that individual means that they are far more valuable to them as a record of the past than anything anyone else could tell them.

So I have begun in my own way to preserve significant moments in my life. I don’t have time to keep a regular diary but I have a book in which I make ad-hoc entries and I also archive little bits of correspondence. I have a little scrapbook for tickets or programmes from concerts and events, a box to put little bits of memorabilia in and of course the usual selection of photos and videos. This is all done on a fairly modest scale and maybe many other people already do this but I certainly didn’t and I have begun to feel a sense of security knowing that on whatever scale my memory might one day fail me, I will still have the means to try and piece together an autobiography that comes from me and belongs to me.

Catherine Loveday is a Principal Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Westminster. She has a long standing research interest in the neuropsychology of memory.

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