A while ago, I heard a news item about a Dutch artist who had created “God’s answer-machine”. It was a real answer-machine; when you rang it the message said (in Dutch) something to the effect that God wasn’t in right now but if you’d like to leave a message then please do so after the tone. No-one (apart from God, perhaps) ever listened to the messages. This is perhaps a rare instance of being enabled to speak out with moderating yourself for an audience. I imagine that to be quite a liberating experience.

The latest bit of reading that I’ve been doing is about the performative aspect of reminiscing with (digital) memory objects and how that influences the stories that are told. This is nothing new really, but it’s not something that I’d given much thought to until now. The question that keeps cropping up is – do people with different forms of dementia perceive that they have an audience and what difference does that make?


Frohlich & Fennell’s (2007) paper comes out of a ‘less is more’ approach to incoporating digital media into social practices that currently don’t involve them. (It seems ironic that one of Frohlich’s current PhD students seems to be intent on taking the ‘more is more’ approach.) Anyway, he has proposed a framework to help people think about the interactions that take place when people talk around photographs. This framework involves the ‘photographer’, ‘the audience’, ‘the photograph’ and ‘the subject’. I’ve put these in quotes because, in the context of digital storytelling or reminiscence, the object that is being talked around need not necessarily be a photograph. Even if it is a photograph, the person who owns it and who is the primary speaker need not necessarily have taken the photograph, they might simply be the owner. The notion of ‘audience’ implies a level of passivity which perhaps underestimates the degree of interaction and the way that the roles of speaker and respondent shift through the conversation. As the conversation flows even the subject is fluid as one person’s contribution provokes a new chain of thought in a listener and shifts the subject onto new terrains. To be fair, though, the framework does try to give visual expression to the distinction between the thoughts and reflections within each person and the external interactions between participants.

To go back a little bit to the idea of the agency of objects… If an object both opens up and proscribes a potential field of all the possible ideas that the object might provoke within a person. The social environment and the presence of people listening also closes off certain ideas and memories within that field, i.e. some ideas may be deemed socially inappropriate and are therefore left unspoken.

However, a question arises when trying to apply this to thinking about working with people living with dementia: some of the comments on reminiscence therapy indicate that over repeated sessions those people become more cognizant of the other people around them and begin to recall them. (Aside from what that implies about the rehabilitation of short-term memory.) This suggests that the people with dementia are less likely to perform for an audience or to self-censor because they are less aware of the implications of the social setting.

Other notes from Frohlich & Fennell:
• Photos are more provocative than video because video places the viewer in a more passive role;
• Photos have already been subject to a process of selection and sifting before reaching the point of being a memory object
• Paper-based photos are capable of being shared and viewed synchronically in a way that digital media are not (at least, not with current widely available technology);
• The advent of digital photography has changed the way we take photos, what we take photos of – because the photos can be more easily disposed of without wasting film, we photograph more and more routine stuff then edit down.

van Dijk’s (2007) book is a more extended essay on the way that memory works and the way that different ways that memory objects mediate memory. Whereas Frohlich & Fennell recognise the potential of other types of objects to provoke memories, van Dijk is explicitly interested in technologies that mediate memory (diaries, photographs, video). van Dijk approaches them by think first about how memory works and then by how the analogue technologies work before moving onto their digital counterparts. Key points from van Dijk are:
• Memory is not static – the act of recollection changes the memory on a physiological level;
• The way we think about the brain and memory and the way we think about memory technologies are linked and the two categories shape each other;
• Memory technologies exist within social networks, so that the practices associated with these technologies are not neutral and are socially constrained. Diaries are written, and photos selected, with an audience in mind.
• The change to digital technologies has a strong influence on their role. Photos act as memory cues for older people but are more about contemporary identity formation for younger people.

One of the main points of relevance for work with people living with dementia is this notion that memory is fluid and that recollection changes memory. The observations of the Outreach Team suggest that once the work of the session brings to mind a memory then that act of rehearsal changes the memory (and it’s accessibility?) making it more easy for participants to remember that a subsequent time. It is worth noting that the work by Viard (2011) with healthy older people suggests that both recalling the past and imagining the future involve a common, imaginative function placing the person in the centre of a mental visual field. So memory is a reconstruction based on stimuli and stored fragments. van Dijk’s point would be that recollection changes the nature of those fragments.

If there is some degree of (for lack of a better phrase) neural plasticity, then it begs the question – how does that change over the course of each person’s dementia?

Kikhia (2011) is concerned with developing lifelogging technology to help sustain the independence of people living through the early stages of dementia. The document is a Licentiate Thesis, which (I think) is the halfway mark through a PhD. As such, Kikhia is working through various ideas and developing the technology but has not implemented it. Nonetheless, the basic premise is similar to the above – that rehearsal strengthens memory and enables the person living with dementia to reconstruct a narrative of their daily lives which helps them maintain their personal sense of self as a being in time and maintains their sense of being a social self in connection with other people.

Another point from van Dijk – she points to an on-line community of diarists living with Alzheimer’s Disease – again the diary-community serves multiple functions including the documentation of self over time and the creation of community.


van Dijk, J. (2007) Mediated Memories in the Digital Age, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Frohlich, D. & Fennell, J. (2007) ‚Sound, paper and memorabilia: resources for a simpler digital photography’, Personal Ubiquitous Computing, 11, 107–116

Kikhia, B. (2011) Supporting Lifestories through Activity Recognition and Digital Reminiscence, Licentiate Thesis, Lulea University of Technology. Available at: [Last accessed 04/10/11]

Viard, A., Chételat, G., Lebreton, K., Desgranges, B., Landeau, B., de La Sayette, V., Eustache, F. & Piolino, P. (2011) ‘Mental time travel into the past and the future in healthy aged adults: An fMRI study’, Brain and Cognition, 75, 1–9


About Bruce Davenport

Museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, dementia, memory, object handling. Bookmark the permalink.

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