Remembering together

Over the last year or so my thoughts about reminiscence have shifted somewhat. This has come about through a mixture of observing some object handling and reminiscence sessions and a series of conversations with colleagues about the topic. At the beginning, the person with the object took centre stage but I’ve started to broaden my focus to consider the conversation as a whole. So now my attention is more on the interplay between the various conversation partners, the objects and the environment they are in; treating all of them as agents in the unfolding conversation that constitutes the moment of reminiscence. Where the conversation involves people with dementia accompanied by a carer then there may be grounds for treating that person and their carer/partner as a particular dyad within the conversation but that should not be assumed.

With this in mind, I’ve come across a couple of interesting papers of late that shed light on different aspects of the conversation. (To be honest, they are in a special edition of Memory Studies that a colleague pointed out to me.)

In “Couples as socially distributed cognitive systems: Remembering in everyday social and material contexts” (Harris et al., 2014), the authors treat couples as a distributed cognitive system. They define distributed cognition by stating that cognitive tasks are sometimes accomplished by coupling neural and bodily resources with material or social resources in coordinated ways. The authors point out a number of examples of this but focus on long-married couples and describe them as ‘persisting integrated systems’. By treating such couples as their unit of analysis and investigating their conversations, the authors hoped to test whether, as the couples remember past event, they construct memories that neither individual was likely to do so alone.

As often seems to be the case with this type of research, much of the data is not presented but the moments of conversation presented in the paper highlight clearly how the to-and-fro of conversation leads to collaboration between the partners and the emergence of new information, emotionally richer accounts or even new understandings. However, the authors also draw out how these conversational skills (which may seem effortless) may need to be re-learnt or adjusted in the wake of cognitive decline. One moving example is a women talking about how she has needed to change the way that she engages in conversation with her husband following a brain injury that resulted in major short-term memory problems.

In their paper, Harris et al. attend closely to spoken interactions whereas Cienki et al. (2014) look at more bodily forms of interaction amongst groups engaged in collaborative remembering. They argue that, during social interactions, individuals often align their verbal and ‘co-verbal’ behaviours both simultaneously and sequentially. As they note, co-speech gesture may serve a range of communicative functions. Pointing enables the group to establish a shared focus of attention on sources of relevant information. Representational gestures may aid memory retrieval but may also help develop a shared conception of an aspect of any event amongst the group members.

(The paper is also interesting from a methodological perspective; to see how they analysed their video data in both a quantitative and qualitative fashion.)

The authors looked at manual gesture, postural sway and eye-gaze play in small groups engaged in collaborative remembering. The qualitative analysis suggested that each aspect performed different roles: gestural alignment evoked shared attention to relevant elements of the discourse and enhancing agreement; postural alignment coincided with shared thinking about a topic; gaze coordination was associated with attention consolidation. However, the quantitative data was more ambiguous, with only simultaneous gaze alignment rates exceeding the chance baseline. The authors interpret this as indicating that the three behaviours have different interactional dynamics and that they need to be treated separately.

Despite the ambiguities, the papers supports the idea that collective remembering is a rich experience that involves many modalities along with human and non-human resources being involved in the distributed system that is doing the thinking/remembering.


Bietti, L., Kok, K. & Cienki, A. (2013) ‘Temporal aspects of behavioral alignment in collaborative remembering’, Available at [Last accessed 08/01/15] (This is a shorter, but freely available, paper which covers some of the ground of the Memory Studies paper.)

Cienki, A., Bietti, L.M. & Kok, K (2014) ‘Multimodal alignment during collaborative remembering’, Memory Studies, 7(3), 354-369

Harris, C.B., Barnier, A.J., Sutton, J. & Keil, P.G. (2014) ‘Couples as socially distributed cognitive systems: Remembering in everyday social and material contexts’, Memory Studies, 7(3), 285-297

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, embodiment, memory, reminiscence. Bookmark the permalink.

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