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Shona Illingworth: Lesions in the Landscape,FACT, 2015. Photo by Jon Barraclough

A Look at the Legitimacy of Memories



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As my first exhibition as a member of the FACT team, Lesions in the Landscape has awoken within me a grotesquely cool fascination with the processes of the brain.

Now firmly in the last week of its run, our current exhibition Lesions in the Landscape has presented the work of artist Shona Illingworth, exploring the effects of amnesia on people and place. Reflecting on the experiences of Claire, a woman living with amnesia, Shona skillfully entwines it with backdrop of the depopulated island of St Kilda.

Memory and the developmental effects it has on us as people has been the crux of numerous works of both nonfiction and fiction. It’s a theme that’s continuously explored, yet when I wriggle free of the sympathetic feelings I get when I think about someone losing their memory - be it Claire with amnesia or my Nan who lives with dementia - I can’t help but be reminded of my own trepidation - and perhaps brooding fear - towards the legitimacy of the memories we can remember.

While Lesions in the Landscape focuses on amnesia and the loss of memories, the exhibition has sparked additional interest in the exact opposite. If we take a look at this TED Talk from Cognitive Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, she explains how she studies cases involving memory, specifically those that deal with people who can’t remember something happening or remember things differently from the way they really were. What’s startling from the talk is how common of a thing this actually is, and when you think about it, how often has either you or someone you know recalled a childhood memory drowned in nostalgia only to have it corrected? It’s as if the memory has gone through a warped game of Chinese Whispers.

Loftus herself has a history, albeit controversial, in exploring semantic memory and trying to figure out how our brains store and retrieve words. Shockingly, she states how data ended up identifying 300 defendants who’d been convicted of crimes they hadn’t committed (DNA testing eventually proved their innocence). After those long since closed cases had been re-opened and analysed, ¾ had been the result of initial false memories.

Yet severe allegations and cases aren’t the whole of her work - she has also looked into how false memories can be a good thing, such as when they are used to increase the desire to eat certain foods. Morally, of course, the work Loftus is researching is definitely in the grey area. She’s even established that herself by asking the question: should these techniques to contaminate legitimate memories be banned from use?

What’s often been found in the legal process is that memory is treated like a photograph - the developed image is seen as unchanging, however, in reality, our memories are like a Wikipedia page: they’re open to be edited from anyone and everyone.

The findings that Loftus has published online and talked about in that previously linked TED Talk, all conjure up unnerving doubts as to how reliable our own memories actually are, and while Lesions in the Landscape looks at the loss of memory that we’re commonly exposed to, the cases undertaken by Elizabeth Loftus remind us that amnesia and dementia are only one end of the memory spectrum - there’s whole other levels that span not only the contamination of legitimate memories, but also the moral and (potential) criminal injustice that lingers close by like a shadow.

Anthony Price is a member of FACT's Marketing & Communications Team.