Lifetime achievement award for Conway

Ella Rhodes reports.

A pioneer in autobiographical memory research has been named joint winner of the 2018 British Psychological Society Lifetime Achievement Award. Professor Martin Conway, who has explored the neuropsychology of memory and neurological bases of memory, also works to challenge common misconceptions about memory through research and in the courts. (See last month for our coverage of the other joint winner, Professor Trevor Robbins).

Now Director of the Centre for Memory and Law (City University of London) Conway left school at 15 without any qualifications and came to psychology almost by accident while studying for his A-levels at night school. After the history A-level he’d hoped to take was dropped thanks to under-subscription a brand new A-level – psychology – was recommended to him instead.

During his PhD with the Open University, originally on the development of memory, Conway discovered only a handful of papers had been published on autobiographical memory and turned his attention to this area. Since he started out in memory research, Conway has seen some dramatic shifts in the field including the development of neuropsychology and neuroimaging. ‘The results from studying patients with brain damage and memory problems and then actually seeing what’s going on in the brain when people are remembering massively changed the way we thought about the whole area.’

Since that time he has worked as postdoctoral researcher in the Medical Research Council’s Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge and later a lecturer in psychology at the University of Lancaster. He became Professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of Bristol, Durham University, the University of Leeds, and Head of Psychology at City University London until last year. Conway is also a Fellow of the Royal College of Arts, the British Psychological Society, the Academy of Social Sciences, the Psychonomic Society, and the American Psychological Association.

His own research has helped to develop the theoretical understanding of autobiographical memory and has included studies of the neuropsychology of memory and the neurological basis of memory. Over his career so far he has published more than 120 peer-reviewed articles, 13 reviews and 47 book chapters and, along with Professor Susan Gathercole, co-founded (and still edits) the journal Memory.

Conway’s work has also led to his involvement with the criminal justice system as an expert witness, and with his colleagues Professor Mark Howe and Dr Lauren Knott Conway recently released a book Memory and Miscarriages of Justice. ‘The big issue in this field is that the view of autobiographical memory held by most memory researchers is that memories are constructed from underlying knowledge, and that makes them prone to error or even being false. There’s been a real issue in trying to explain this to courts and we’ve been working on how to get this across to judges, barristers and jurors.’

In a recent paper exploring beliefs about memory among police, the public and memory researchers Conway and his colleagues highlighted something he has dubbed the ‘commonsense memory belief system’. ‘The central feature of that belief system is that memory is like a video, which is quite clearly wrong all the evidence says that’s not the case.’

Conway is hoping, through his work at the Centre for Memory and Law, that judges in particular become better informed about the true nature of autobiographical memories. ‘We wrote a paper a couple of years ago on allegations of rape; the attrition rate for allegations of rape is 96 per cent, so only 4 per cent get through into the legal process and even then many get chucked out. It seems one of the reasons for this is this commonsense memory beliefs system, which is held by a lot of the police and by the Crown Prosecution Service. So if a woman claims she was raped but can’t remember the colour of the attacker’s hair, didn’t know what he was wearing, or she’d had a couple of drinks, then they won’t take it any further, and we think that’s wrong. Memory normally is pretty fragmentary and there are often bits missing, it’s not unusual at all, and that’s because it isn’t like a video. We’d like to get that message across to judges and get judges to brief juries about that.’ 

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