I’ve had some really interesting feedback on my article on children’s memory for lost family members, published in the Guardian last weekend. My starting point in the piece was the idea that autobiographical memory is fragile and very susceptible to manipulation, particularly in childhood. So parents who want to seed memories of departed grandparents find themselves in fertile territory. I don’t know for sure whether it will work or not, long-term, but I hope that my kids will ‘remember’ their Grandad, through his stories and sayings, almost as vividly as I remember him.
Sometimes psychologists fake photographs in which a picture of their subject, in his or her childhood, appears in an unfamiliar setting, in places or with people who, in real life they have never seen. The subjects are amazed at first but then—in proportion to their anxiety to please—they oblige by producing a ‘memory’ to cover the experience that they have never actually had. I don’t know what this shows, except that some psychologists have persuasive personalities, that some subjects are imaginative, and that we are all told to trust the evidence of our senses, and we do it: we trust the objective fact of the photograph, not our subjective bewilderment. It’s a trick, it isn’t science; it’s about our present, not about our past.