An Interdisciplinary Approach to Remembering

Working across the humanities-science divide: Raphael Lyne and Jon Simons on an interdisciplinary approach to remembering


Raphael Lyne, Professor of Renaissance Literature in the Faculty of English at Cambridge, has been working with Jon Simons (Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Cambridge) and Charles Fernyhough (Professor of Psychology of Durham) to develop their common interests in aspects of memory. This article arises from that collaboration and includes extracts from a conversation Raphael had with Jon about their respective aims for a joint project.

Working across the humanities-science divide should allow new questions to be framed in ways that would not be possible within existing disciplinary boundaries. Such questions have the potential to transform understanding of topics that cannot be limited to one field or another. This is easily agreed in general, but developing such collaborations in specific contexts leads to subtle challenges. Memory is the kind of topic that draws interest from many directions, but this does not mean it is easy to establish truly fertile interdisciplinary common ground.

First steps: recognising the need for an interdisciplinary approach to remembering

There are numerous contexts in which a full understanding of human memory cannot easily be separated from the subjective experience of remembering (that is, the way it feels to experience reminiscence or recall). When memories are impaired, any continuing comfort and happiness of remembering are significant alongside, and perhaps to some extent independently from, the residual content of memories. Similarly, the panic and estrangement of lacking the feeling of memory might concern us independently of the retention of information. For those whose memories are affected by trauma, again, either the feeling of being flooded with, or deprived of, that connection to past events, has a power that may not depend entirely on the presence or lack of factual recall.

In addition to these real-life contexts in which one might experience or intuit the importance of subjective experience in memory, there are scholarly fields in which these questions have different kinds of presence. In one way or another, these fields might aspire to illuminate the psychological and psychiatric difficulties that are associated with memory impairments, and more specifically with the dissociation of memory content from the feeling of remembering. For example, cognitive neuroscientist Jon Simons has demonstrated that there are brain regions which appear to have a particular role in the feeling of remembering. As well as helping us understand forms of amnesia that may be associated with lesions in these regions, these advances in understanding prompt further thoughts about memory more generally.

There is also an angle of approach from the point of view of the humanities, and more specifically from literary scholarship. In literature we see a particularly intense focus on the experience of remembering. Sometimes this is obvious, in that the emotional and physical consequences are described explicitly. Sometimes it may be less so: our attention might be drawn beyond the immediacy of conveying the content of a memory to the rewards and costs we can infer from the fictional rememberer. The question is, what do we gain from putting these two fields together, and how to make the most of that gain?

Next steps: towards an ‘iterative process’

It can be rather a long path from identifying and agreeing interesting instances where writers have drawn our attention to the subjective experience of remembering, to earning a place in interdisciplinary study and making a difference to the broader conversation. This has been my challenge as a literary scholar engaging with cognitive science and cognitive scientists for fifteen years; and Jon Simons is the person with whom I am conversing most at present.

One thing I was told early on in my quest is that if I hoped to understand psychologists, and if I wanted them to be interested in what I was hoping to do, the most effective way was to get them thinking and talking about the design of experiments. Sure enough, such discussions have been among the most illuminating I have had, but they have also revealed to me that designing experiments that respond to questions from a literary direction can be very hard. Refining the question so that one variable is clearly at stake is central to experimental design but hard to achieve – and hard to conceptualise – from a literary point of view.

In conversation with Jon, however, and facing the challenges of the topic of the subjective experience of remembering, there are significant prospects for what Jon considers an ‘iterative process’ of thinking back and forth between the way that memory seems to feel in literature and the way it seems to feel in experiments. The iterative process can pose questions from one discipline to the other that can advance our collective understanding. With a prompt from science, we can look differently at novels and poems and plays. With a prompt from literature, arising from the kinds of insights that storytellers and storytelling generate, and informed by the expertise of scholars who can help identify what’s unique or what’s usefully typical, we might identify new research questions and design experiments differently, in response to what writers have been able to make convincing.

The receptiveness of scientists to insights from literary scholars is inherently more interesting to me than the other way around, partly because of where I am standing, but perhaps also because it seems like a bolder step, especially when experimental design, with its costs and protocols of many kinds, is concerned. When I spoke to Jon about what motivated him to engage with models and depictions of remembering found in literature, he pointed first and foremost to the nature of the topic in question, memory, and the limitations that any field might have in trying to understand it completely. In his view, understanding human memory involves going beyond what has thus far been ‘objectively measurable’ by existing scientific means.

On the one hand, there have been numerous successes in getting at what is ‘scientifically tractable’, but accessing subjective experience has generally been considered ‘too difficult’, or just not part of the science of cognition. As he put it, looking at the changing field in which he works, ‘there’s an appreciation that when we think of memory, we think of autobiographical remembering, we think of going back in time, exploring, reminiscing about some salient event’, so a fully coordinated approach might have to factor in what it means for a memory to be ‘vivid in a subjective sense, as opposed to being detailed or accurate in an objective sense’.

And beyond: stories and specifics

Jon’s motivation also comes from working with patients with impaired memories. For a long time memory science has featured well-known individuals with forms of amnesia, and specific brain injuries. In addition to their fascinating and revealing performance in experimental tests of memory, they also have stories to tell, about how it feels to have, or lack, recall of events and objects. It was partly from conversations with patients with parietal lobe damage that Jon derived a key research interest, in the dissociation of memory accuracy from the vivid experience of remembering. He sees it as an important step to move away from a mindset that prized as truly scientific being ‘disinterested in what a patient was like, or what it was like to be that patient’.

Testimonies from patients are not always that easy to gather and compare and quantify in a formal way. Testimony in general offers a lot but comes with complications. The role of self-report in experiments on subjective experience requires careful handling: getting people to say how they felt during tests on their memories, for example, may be very revealing, but the things we say about ourselves can fall into patterns – we could call them genres – that can be biased and influenced by many different factors. Calling these testimonies and self-reports ‘stories’ might seem to belittle them in some ways, by implying that they are to some extent invented. From the perspective of a literary scholar, it might also affiliate them to the bigger picture of stories about the mind and how it works – stories which have often been attributed great value and insight. Literature tells us stories about what it feels like to remember, and could be a huge store of information to sift and rethink in a scientific context.

As Jon puts it, ‘we can start to understand the dynamic brain interactions that might underlie not just a sense of a detailed and precise instance of remembering that we can measure empirically, but also an instance of remembering that is experienced by that person subjectively as a vivid and high-quality memory’. The goal is to devise ‘more objective measures of that subjective experience’; the means for him is experimentation; but the questions being tested can be steered by the way novelists and poets and playwrights convey what it feels like to remember intensely. These could afford ‘the development of some scientific paradigms that can enable us to start to investigate these things empirically’. Meanwhile, the ways that scientists are thinking about the topic feed back into literary study, as an understanding of what is at stake in the representation of memory is illuminated further. The dissociability of memory content and memory feeling, for example, might provoke interesting rethinking of many moments, classic and otherwise, where writers are trying to convey what memory is and what it is like.

As an example of the sort of interdisciplinary topic that could cross between literature and cognitive neuroscience, posing questions in both directions, we have considered the multi-modal nature of memories. Intuitively we gravitate towards the idea of a visual picture as the essence of a memory, and visual stimuli are often at the forefront of memory experiments. And yet, many great literary depictions of memory – like Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra’s arrival by barge in Shakespeare, or T.S. Eliot’s re-working of that speech in The Waste Land – draw in all the senses, and (again intuitively) we often have a sense that a smell or a sound can be especially evocative. To try to understand multi-modality, and its perhaps variant relations to the content and experience of remembering, seems like a task best shared between fields, both of which can learn from what happens as a result of the sharing.


Raphael Lyne is a Professor of Renaissance Literature in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of four books, most recently Memory and Intertextuality in Renaissance Literature (Cambridge, 2016), and the editor, with Cathy Shrank, of The Complete Poems of Shakespeare (Routledge, 2017). His Faculty web page and his blog (currently dormant but with plenty to read) give further information about his research.

Jon Simons is a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, where he leads a research programme seeking to understand the brain mechanisms responsible for human memory.  He is principal investigator in the Memory Laboratory at the Department of Psychology, and is on Twitter @js_simons.


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