Seminar overview: Stories and embodied memories in dementia – 16/4/13

Author: Mona Sakr

Title: “Stories and embodied memories in dementia”

Speaker: Lars-Christer Hyden, Linköping University, Sweden

Today’s seminar (offered by MODE in conjunction with NOVELLA) was a fascinating insight into the role of the body in the articulation of memories by individuals suffering from dementia. The seminar considered video analysis of interviews as a way of re-thinking our conceptualisations of memory and memory loss, and the importance of the body in storing, retrieving and communication memories.

Lars-Christer Hyden is a professor of Social Psychology at Linköping University in Sweden and director of the Centre for Dementia Research (CEDER). His research focuses on communication and narrative in the context of dementia. He is currently conducting studies into the experience of dementia among couples and the various semiotic tools that are used in storytelling by individuals with dementia.

Hyden’s work uses the notion of embodiment in two ways. Firstly, he draws attention to the communicative body. He argues that there is a need to explore how the body is used as a semiotic tool in the construction of narrative, particularly when language is negatively affected by dementia. Secondly, through the concept of embodied cognition, he suggests that we can begin to question traditional models of memory that highlight abstract and analytical cognition as opposed to embodied experience. Recent research has demonstrated the extent to which memories are based on sensory experience rather than abstract events.

In the seminar, we looked at a short video clip from an interview with a woman who has dementia. By focusing on gaze, gesture and language, Hyden demonstrated the extent to which language and gesture had different semiotic functions in this context. While language is analytical, gestures are syncretic i.e. they are conducted and interpreted as complete ‘wholes’ of communication. As a result, gestures were used to facilitate communication when the language necessary to communicate a particular idea wasn’t available.

Taking this idea further, Hyden argued that depending on the semiotic tools we use to share memories with others, the nature of memory changes. When we expect memories to be communicated via language, they become analytical and disembodied entities. By focusing on the role of the body in communicating memories, we are focusing on the embodied experiences that are the basis of memory formation and thereby re-thinking the construct of memory.

Hyden’s conclusions were followed by a range of observations and questions from the audience. To mention one example – an audience member drew attention to suggestions that language use itself becomes more syncretic as dementia progresses. These findings would support the importance of gesture as a tool to convey ‘wholes’ of experience, but it also suggests that within modes, different types of semiotic work can be achieved. Language is not necessarily analytical, and perhaps gesture is not necessarily syncretic.

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