Where better to explore the complex relationships between memory and narrative than at Oxford’s Story Museum? On 14 May, Alison Waller (University of Roehampton) was joined by literary historian Diane Purkiss (Keble College, Oxford) and psychologist James Ost (University of Portsmouth) to talk about the intersections of research into memory and storytelling, as part of the Memory Network’s series of interdisciplinary public events. The panel discussed what adults remember about books read in childhood, the role of memory in emotionally-charged creative acts of writing, and how far eye-witness statements can be trusted in the light of studies into the psychology of memory.
Since the event took place alongside the Story Museum’s wonderful ’26 Characters’ exhibition, which shows many of Britain’s best loved writers and storytellers transformed into the characters they most loved as children, debate touched on the remembered reading and writing practices of individuals who might be called creators of literature read by young people (C. S. Lewis, Alan Garner, Andrew Lang). The speakers asked how stories themselves are shaped in and by the memory, and how affective forces might play a part in this process. Purkiss’s analysis of the manuscripts of Garner and Hemmingway offered some stimulating insights into the ways that post-traumatic stress and other syndromes linked to memory can be represented in the physical marks of authorship. Waller traced an impassioned relationship with Beatrix Potter’s classic picturebook Squirrel Nutkin, which features prominently in Lewis’s autobiographical writings as an example of remembered story, and resembles many accounts of remembered reading by adults in its contextualisation through a meaningful moment of childhood experience. Ost demonstrated psychology’s growing interest in story as a way of understanding memory as a cognitive process, and argued that autobiographical memory is best understood as a reconstructive, active, and context-dependent process: a conclusion that demands a cautious approach to using remembered witness accounts in serious court cases.
Although the panel’s interests were diverse, they found common ground in a fascination with the early psychological experiments of Frederic Bartlett, who published his famous work, Remembering: a Study in Experimental and Social Psychology in 1932. Bartlett’s publication was important for many reasons, including the fact that it marked a crucial challenge to existing laboratory-based empirical studies into memory, but it is perhaps Bartlett’s material for testing types of recollection and familiarity that is most striking. Alongside line-drawings and textbook extracts, he provided short folk tales for his subjects to read and then reproduce, after periods of time between 15 minutes and several years. His participants often retold parts of the unfamiliar tale with dramatic errors, which then became part of the memory of that story then next time they were asked to remember. Analysing the sequences of retellings, Bartlett found he could suggest that long-term memory is not stored accurately or statically, but that remembering is an active process requiring us to make an effort after meaning.
One of the stories used by Bartlett is a North American folk tale adapted from a translation by Dr Franz Boas, called ‘The War of the Ghosts,’ selected by Bartlett for its exotic distance from the cultural and social environment of his experimental subjects (who on the whole were his Cambridge students). During the ‘Remembering Stories’ event, the audience were invited to take part in a re-staging of the experiment, opening with a reading of ‘The War of the Ghosts’ and then testing their memory of it at the end of the panel. The majority were remarkably good at recall, hardly transforming the tale at all; but then again they had spent the evening immersed in stories. You can try out the experiment yourself by reading the story here: http://penta.ufrgs.br/edu/telelab/2/war-of-t.htm