This post will be a bit of a try-out for a talk I am giving at the Memory Maps: Image, Place and Story conference in Cambridge next week. I will be asking what the study of memory development in early childhood can tell us about how minds represent familiar landscapes and respond imaginatively to them. The conference, hosted by CRASSH, will bring together writers, literary scholars and visual artists (plus a token psychologist: me) to investigate how the people we are, culturally and socially, determine how we respond to place, both in present time and in memory. The Memory Maps project began as a collaboration between the V&A and the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex. You can view the project’s website here.
The psychologists Katherine Nelson and Robyn Fivush have shown that children get involved in conversations about past events from soon after their second birthdays, and gradually take on ever-greater responsibility for joint storytelling about the past. Furthermore, parents’ willingness or skill in supporting these dialogues has been shown to have a big effect on children’s developing storytelling abilities. Longitudinal studies, following the same samples of families over periods of time, show that parents who have an ‘elaborative’ style in their interactions have children who produce more sophisticated memory narratives. Adopting an elaborative style means producing orienting information (details on where the event occurred, and who the actors in the drama were) and evaluative information (all the emotional details of how things looked, seemed and felt that gave the event personal significance). More than simply reiterating the crucial information, our efforts were about allowing Athena to step back into the event and re-experience it. This was her drama, and we were helping her to take centre stage.