By George Britton
Once I found out that I got the JRA award, I found myself explaining what the scheme is, and what I was going to do, to countless people. The reality of the project is only sinking in as I carry it out. In the process I have met lots of researchers, attended lab meetings and carried out fieldwork in an exotic location (Eastbourne). I also got to attend a social group for LGBT residents of Brighton and Hove over 50, called Older and Out. They were friendly, interesting and they even gave me lunch. Not every project combines this direct involvement with the community and lab-based psychology, so I feel very lucky.
My main tasks in the eight-week period were to gather pictures of objects and to show them to people aged 60 to 80 who don’t have any severe memory problems. For every object they recognise, the participants will tell me any memories they have of it. The memory could be nothing more than a name (“that’s a kettle”) or they could have a different quality- the memory of the specific kettle that was in your house. This kind of memory can have all sorts of details, including where it was kept or used and who used it. The objects are common household items from the 50s and 60s which people in our target age range are likely to remember, mostly photographed at the excellent How We Lived Then museum in Eastbourne. For example, a teasmade (have you heard of it?) would have been present in almost every house in the UK at one point, but they’ve been out of fashion for a long time. When presented with this kind of object, there’s a chance that memories which hadn’t been recalled for decades could come back. I’ve found that almost everyone I talk to has something interesting to say about the project, or some useful object to suggest that I hadn’t thought of. People love to reminisce about their favourite things anyway, making the theme and purpose of the project quite easy to engage people with. So the JRA is a good for conversation and applying for post-grad courses.
I’m around halfway now, and I have gathered my pictures and set up to start interviewing. At every stage I find seemingly small tasks are more complex and time-consuming than I estimate, but knowing that I’m doing something both beyond and for my own education has the strange effect of making it enjoyable anyway. Applying for ethical approval and recruiting participants are good examples of what I’m talking about. I can’t imagine many people would Photoshop over 100 images onto a neutral background just for the fun of it! I think the skills and organisation needed to deal with these tasks are best learned from getting involved, which is partly why I applied for a JRA in the first place. It’s going to make my third-year project smoother and more enjoyable, because I won’t be confronted with all the admin and practical issues for the first time.
Hopefully, my project will actually contribute to a further research program that investigates the role of various brain structures in the recollection of memories in people who are suffering from Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Pleasant reminiscence for people whose memories are intact, can become a surprise relief from the confusion of dementia in those with Alzheimer’s Disease. This is a cool aspect of my JRA; not only does it concern the treatment of a society-wide and worsening medical problem (maybe helping to improve quality of life for sufferers in the process) but it could contribute, even in a small way, to our understanding of human memory.
You can read other stories about the JRA scheme here:
My summer as a Junior Research Associate by Alex Earl
Dan Goodwin: Junior Research Associate by Dan Goodwin
Experience with the JRA scheme by Ruihan Wu
Clara Wilson’s JRA experience by Clara Wilson