Last weekend, we had a family trip to York which involved visiting ‘Chocolate – York’s Sweet Story‘. This is a visitor attraction in the centre of York which tells the story of chocolate and the role of the major confectionery companies that were based around York. Its style is more science centre than museum. It comprises a sequence of themed rooms and groups are escorted around by a tour guide. The final space is a chocolatier’s kitchen where groups get to see and smell filled chocolates being made and taste them at the end.
The fourth room was a curved room lined with photos and certificates from the companies’ heydays in the early-mid 20th Century. Here our guide pointed to a photo and told us a story about an older lady who had visited some time previously…. The photo showed rows of women, seated and facing each other across a vat of molten chocolate. The guide told us how these ladies would have a fork (think fondue) with which they would spear a piece of fruit or a nut, dip it in the chocolate and then place it on a grid to dry. As they put it down their would be a dribble of chocolate on the end of their fork and using that they would flick their wrists and dribble/write a letter on the sweet identifying what was under the chocolate coating (think ‘p’ for pear etc..). The women would dip and mark 1000s of pieces of fruit every day whilst chatting with their colleagues. At this point in the guide’s talk, this older lady spoke up saying “I used to do that!” and she talked about being in that role. Being quick-thinking and having a chocolatier’s kitchen, the staff persuaded the lady to have a go at dipping and marking the pieces of fruit. The old lady was nervous but had a go. According to the guide, she dipped the fruit and then (with a wiggle of her wrist) she wrote the appropriate letter on the fruit. The lady was pleasantly surprised that she could something that she hadn’t done in 30 years or more. She did a second, a third and then more; her actions becoming faster and increasingly fluent. (Interestingly the guide talked about the memory being in her arm, which is probably how it seems when the memory of the action is not accessible to the conscious, semantic memory.)
So… the photo evoked an autobiographical memory that, given the circumstances, was probably part of a dense network of multi-sensory memories lurking in different parts of the cortex. The presence of the kitchen facilities allowed the staff to provoke a procedural memory, mediated by multiple centres but significantly involving the cerebellum. Out of this happy accident, the staff got some new stories which they could enrich their own narratives. The lady got an unexpected, personal reminiscence session which, hopefully, made her happier. There’s no way to know how long it lasted but the fact that her stories were being valued by others and that she could demonstrate mastery of forgotten skills probably contributed to her well-being. All that from a photo… well, that and a kitchen equipped with chocolate melting facilities.