Big picture: Art is the process of memory

Featuring Professor Nicky Clayton and Mr Clive Wilkins. Image by Nick Saffell.

Although we think of memory as being about the past, it evolved to think about the future, allowing us to construct and reconstruct alternative scenarios about what might happen as opposed to what has happened. This particular feature helps to explain why memory is not an accurate repository of the past, and it is great for creativity, as artists have known for centuries. The earliest psychologist to publish extensively on the reconstructive nature of memory, in the 1930s, was Sir Frederic Bartlett, the first Professor of Experimental Psychology in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University. How fitting that the first Artist-in-Residence in that department, Clive Wilkins, is also fascinated by the reconstructive nature of memory. For the past five years he has been collaborating with Nicky Clayton, who is Professor of Comparative Cognition at the university.

‘Nicky and I met on a tango dance floor [pictured], a space that is often felt to transcend time,’ Clive explains. ‘What sparked the collaboration, however, was the recognition that we both shared a passion for understanding how memory works, and more generally, the subjective experience of thinking with and without words. This has been an issue central to Nicky’s research on the cognitive capacities of corvids.’

‘I found that these birds, like us, can use wordless thoughts to think about the past and plan for the future’, Nicky continues. ‘Such concerns also appear prominently in Clive’s series of novels, The Moustachio Quartet, which explore the complexity and illusory nature of memory. Together our work investigates mental time travel, and questions the very nature of perception and consciousness.’

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