An evening of inspiring ideas, cleverly communicated

Jon Sutton reports from the Salon London Transmission Prize.

Now in its fourth year, Salon London’s Transmission Prize rewards scientists, writers, philosophers and activists for original, useful and beautiful ideas, and the way they communicate them. This year, two nominated psychologists spoke at the awards evening, held at Foyles bookshop in London.

Dr Catherine Loveday (University of Westminster, and – full disclosure – Chair of the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee) began her on-stage discussion with an admission that her PhD in memory and ageing was ‘quite dry really, lots of word list learning, lots of time spent drinking tea with old people’, before she realised it was their stories that fascinated her. Autobiographical memory is more than just knowing what we have done, it is having the feelings and true recollection surrounding that. It helps us to plan, to interact and communicate. Without it, we struggle with mental ‘time travel’. It is Marcel Proust’s ‘rope let down from heaven to draw one up from the abyss of unbeing’. It shapes our very identity. Loveday described how people remember things better if they have their own cue, rather than others prompting them. ‘Hang on to your own diaries, your own voice, your own words… they will prompt your memories far better than somebody handing your memories to you. Ownership seems to be hugely important to people… people may say I am a bit of a hoarder, but when you’ve spent time working with people with memory difficulties, you just don’t want to let things go! It’s my insurance policy.’

Music is so powerful in creating memories and shaping identity, and Dr Loveday told the audience that the classic ‘reminiscence bump’ – our tendency to refer back to adolescence and early adulthood for main memories, favourite books, greatest footballers, etc – occurs earlier in music. This may suggest that music is particularly important in shaping our identity, a theme also reflected in Dr Vicky Williamson’s (University of Sheffield) nomination for her book You are the Music. Dr Williamson explained her long fascination with music, and what makes it such a fundamental and necessary activity. One of her particular interests is how we form musical memories and why they can sometimes get stuck in our head. She explained that musical memories are incredibly difficult to form – ‘when we first listen to a piece of music we are like a kid in a candy shop, darting around all the different sounds and not really knowing what to do with it all.’ But because music draws us in, we listen to the same pieces over and over, eventually forming memories that are incredibly robust. This was elegantly demonstrated by playing ‘thin slices’ of music: for example just 500ms of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, was all it took for the audience to recognise the decade and the artist.  

It was also interesting to see how the other speakers’ offerings were shot through with psychological themes too. Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell’s exploration of rebuilding the world from scratch is a paean to the value of collaboration, as well as a wonderful source of pub conversations – how long could a person survive if locked into the average post-apocalyptic supermarket? (55 years. 63 if you ate the dog food). Lucy McRobert spoke passionately about the transformative power of nature, which she researched for Tony Juniper’s book ‘What Nature Does for Britain’. Sarah Corbett described ‘craftivism’, a gentle and compassionate way for introverts to engage in activism: for example, a recent campaign to get M&S to pay their workers a living wage which involved making beautifully wrapped, personalised handkerchiefs for all the board members. Rick Edwards demonstrated how to get a new generation to engage with voting. And calling for ‘a little more conversation’, eventual winner Professor Theodore Zeldin spoke of the value of our secrets and stories in providing solace to others, and of finding a ‘new art of living’.

Previous winners and shortlisted speakers have included writer and broadcaster Claudia Hammond for her psychological exploration of time, Professor David Nutt for his honest look at the harm of all drugs, Professor Barbara Sahakian for her examination of smart drugs, and Professor Elaine Fox for her work in emotional resilience. It’s a prize and an event worth keeping an eye out for – Salon London’s passion for ideas is clear to see, and it’s great for psychology to have prizes on offer for those who are looking to ‘spark the imagination and speak to the concerns of the time’.

 

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