Archive for Memory

Age, Memory and Learning

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2018 by telescoper

Today’s a big day for prospective students at Irish universities. It’s the day when the Central Applications Office (CAO, the equivalent of the UK’s UCAS) makes offers of places to students based the Leaving Certificate results that were announced last week. Thus begins the process by which universities find out how many students we will have for entry next month. Lectures here at Maynooth start on 24th September, with an induction week before that, so there promises to be quite a rush to get everything sorted out.

The first thing that struck me thinking ahead to this year’s new entry of students was that the majority of students starting this autumn either here in Ireland or in the UK were born in the year 2000. That means that I’ve been a Professor (at four different universities: Nottingham, Cardiff, Sussex and Maynooth) all the time they have been alive! Yikes I feel old!

The other thing that struck me among all the press coverage of the Leaving Certificate in Ireland is the significant amount of griping about how these examinations are basically just memory tests and the system encourages rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, as a number of people have pointed out in opinion pieces (e.g. here) and letters (here and here), a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right.

I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, however, they are not sufficient. You other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in such a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!


On the Interpretation of Dreams

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on September 11, 2013 by telescoper

Last night I had a peculiar dream in which, for reasons obscure, I hijacked one of the dishes of the Ryle Telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge and drove it at high speed along a railway line all the way to Oxford (pursued by an ice cream van). To non-astronomers this probably sounds completely barking, but I should point out that the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory is located at the site of Lord’s Bridge, a former railway station on the (now defunct) line between Cambridge and Oxford and some of the telescope dishes move along sections of the old track. Of course the track no longer extends all the way to Oxford, and in any case there would be bridges under which one of the 13-metre antennae of the Ryle Telescope could not possibly pass. Such mundane considerations don’t matter in the world of dreams, however, and the whole escapade was like a madcap chase scene from a daft movie. I woke up chuckling.

I’m by no means an expert in the interpretation of dreams but on the occasions when I can remember what I’ve dreamt about it always seems to be a weird juxtaposition of things I’ve experienced in the recent past. In this particular case I recall reading an article about the possibility (now, I believe, shelved) that the Oxford-Cambridge railway might be reinstated. I’ve also been reading tweets and facebook messages from people currently at a radio-astronomy workshop in the Netherlands.

My interpretation of this sort of thing is that during a dream the sleeping brain is sifting through recent experiences and relating them to others, including recent events and things lodged in long-term memory. If I’m right, then this kind of dream is basically a by-product of the workings of a sort of subconscious filing system. Not sure how the ice cream van fits into this scheme though.

There are other kinds of dream, of course, and they don’t always fit into this pattern. In my experience the majority don’t make any sense at all, so I won’t say any more about that class. I don’t know how many people have regular recurrent dreams, but I do; these are of two types. The first is a standard “anxiety” dream. I could be sitting in an orchestra on the stage of a concert hall, or some similar situation. I have a musical instrument in my hands and am dressed for the part, like all the other musicians. It is shortly before the performance is due to start. The problem is that I don’t actually know how to play the instrument. Time is ticking away and I’m soon to be found out. How do I escape? I think it’s obvious that this dream is closely related to impostor syndrome.

The second type of recurrent dream is harder to fathom. I’ve moved around quite a lot during my career: starting in Sussex, then in London, Nottingham, Cardiff and then back to Sussex. In this kind of dream I’m supposed to be back in one of the places I used to live, but it’s curiously different from what it was like in reality. One example involved me being back in my old flat in Bethnal Green. Exploring the place I took a nice walk through the French windows and into the garden. Trouble is, the flat didn’t actually have French windows or a garden. How could it? It wasn’t even on the ground floor…

That kind of dream is quite disconcerting, especially since it’s recurrent. But I can give an example that’s even weirder. As regular readers of this blog – both of them – will know, I was unwell for a period last summer. During the worst of this episode I was confined for a while in a psychiatric clinic. I wasn’t there for very long (perhaps 3-4 days) but I didn’t really keep track of time very well and in retrospect it seems I was there much longer than that. I was also heavily sedated for a lot of the time I was there. The effect of this was to blur the distinction between sleeping and waking almost completely so I literally didn’t know whether I was conscious or unconscious.

Now I know for a fact that I didn’t have any visitors when I was in that place. However, I have perfect recollection of a time when a young man (a former student of mine of Cardiff University) came into my room, sat down beside my bed and opened a discussion about physics, his plans for doing a PhD in Early Universe Cosmology, and various other topics to do with books and films. Looking back on this I realize that the conversation I’d imagined was actually a kind of synthesis of bits of other conversations I’d previously had with the same person in a different environment (i.e. my old office in Cardiff University). The peculiarity is that I now remember that imagined pastiche of a conversation as if it were actually real, and it has always been difficult for me to convince myself that it didn’t happen. It’s almost as if the filing system had gone into reverse, pulling old memories out of their drawers and sticking them back in my consciousness.

Related to this (possibly) are various memories I have of very early childhood. These are often very vivid, but in many cases completely at odds with facts that I’ve subsequently established. I think what has happened in such examples is that I haven’t actually remembered the event in question, but have been told things about it so frequently that a memory has somehow been constructed to accommodate the narrative.

Over a year on I still find the clinic episode quite scary to think about. I think that’s mostly because it’s an extreme example of how one’s perception of what is real and remembered versus what is imaginary and dreamt can get confused. Am I really writing this? Or am I dreaming? Are you really reading it? Are you dreaming? Wake-up!


Posted in Poetry with tags , on November 27, 2010 by telescoper

Brightly the sun of summer shone,
Green fields and waving woods upon,
And soft winds wandered by;
Above, a sky of purest blue,
Around, bright flowers of loveliest hue,
Allured the gazer’s eye.

But what were all these charms to me,
When one sweet breath of memory
Came gently wafting by?
I closed my eyes against the day,
And called my willing soul away,
From earth, and air, and sky;

That I might simply fancy there
One little flower — a primrose fair,
Just opening into sight;
As in the days of infancy,
An opening primrose seemed to me
A source of strange delight.

Sweet Memory! ever smile on me;
Nature’s chief beauties spring from thee,
Oh, still thy tribute bring!
Still make the golden crocus shine
Among the flowers the most divine,
The glory of the spring.

Still in the wall-flower’s fragrance dwell;
And hover round the slight blue bell,
My childhood’s darling flower.
Smile on the little daisy still,
The buttercup’s bright goblet fill
With all thy former power.

For ever hang thy dreamy spell
Round mountain star and heather bell,
And do not pass away
From sparkling frost, or wreathed snow,
And whisper when the wild winds blow,
Or rippling waters play.

Is childhood, then, so all divine?
Or Memory, is the glory thine,
That haloes thus the past?
Not all divine; its pangs of grief,
(Although, perchance, their stay be brief,)
Are bitter while they last.

Nor is the glory all thine own,
For on our earliest joys alone
That holy light is cast.
With such a ray, no spell of thine
Can make our later pleasures shine,
Though long ago they passed.

by Anne Brontë (1820-1849)