Confessions of an object obsessive

A friend of mine runs Curiosity Creative, a centre for digital storytelling in the North East of England. She invited me to attend a workshop to create a story but the theme of the workshop was stories about the history of Newcastle and I realised that I wanted to try and tell a (sort of) story that used objects to explore why I’m fascinated by objects. So thought I would try to put it in a blog instead.

This is ‘Overheard in Doi Saket’ an album of field recordings from Thailand by Kate Carr. I bought it when it came out in 2014. It is the first (and, so far, only) album that I’ve bought which comes on a Micro SD card.

Overheard in Doi Saket by Kate Carr

I am a sucker for quirky experiments in format. The label is handwritten and the text on the booklet which unfolds out is so small I could feel my eyes straining to focus on it. (Thankfully, the album comes with a pdf of the the booklet.)

The first albums that I bought were on cassette. Sleeve notes were, in retrospect, larger though my eyes would have been younger. I am wary of the idea that objects have agency, instead I prefer Chemero’s (2003) version of affordances. He argues that affordances emerge out of relationships between the capacities of the individual and the physical [and social] qualities of the environment. So, creating new technology changes the nature of the environment and, combined with my ageing eyes, new affordances emerge. Cassettes came with their own affordances and practices. I probably took it all for granted when I was a teenager but it came to light in recent years as I watched my eldest child grapple with this unfamiliar technology.

“So.. do I have to turn the tape over?”, he asked


“How do I do that?”


Cue an explanation of which buttons to press and the most timorous example of lifting a cassette out of the player and turning it round then before putting it back in.

There is an on-going cassette music scene and it is possible that my children will get all retro on me, but it seems unlikely that they will ever need a pencil to listen to music. Nor will they sit by the radio to record their favourite singles. Or, sadly, wander down to the library to explore whatever musical randomness they have there. I am running the risk of getting all nostalgic but I think that all these experiences shape the way that we receive the music. The most obvious is the way that cassettes and records constrained our listening to 20, 30 or 45 minute chunks before forcing an interlude on us. This is something that my kids really don’t have to experience… apart from at tea-time when I generally choose the music. They also won’t get the dubious pleasure of walking into a dodgy, bootleg music store (like the one that used to exist on Oxford Road in Manchester) to order really rough recordings of concerts made on concealed tape recorders smuggled into the venue. However, what they probably will get is the emotional link with music and they will probably find, when they look back on their lives, how the music is nestled in a wider network of associated memories which give that music a deeper personal meaning.

I started buying records around the age of 16. One of the first records that I bought was ‘Gone to Earth’ by David Sylvian. Everything about it was fabulous to me. The artwork was abstract and gorgeous. It was a double-vinyl album and the songs on the second record were all instrumental and unlike most music that I had hitherto encountered.

Front cover of ‘Gone to Earth’ by David Sylvian.

Inner gatefold sleeve of ‘Gone to Earth’ with ‘Overheard at Doi Saket’ for comparison.










I am a sucker for the tiny, daily rituals that cohere around things. Take, for example, all the faff that comes with making an espresso. (No coffee pods for me!) Maybe the rituals create order, maybe they enforce a slower pace of doing things – I don’t know, but I relish them. Records came with lots of ritual especially the second-hand ones that I hunted down in record fairs: All that holding them up to the light to look for scratches and careful reading of sleeve notes, all that wiping down of the record surface before playing the album: I love it.

Again, I only really became aware of all of this through my kids. I moved on to CDs, like most people did, from 1990 onwards. But with the resurgence of records in the last 5 years or so, I dug out my record player and some of my old records. Initially ‘the playing of the record’ was like a whole-family event. The kids gathered round to watch this strange ritual take place. They were slightly bewildered by the click-clack sound of the record player stopping and the need to turn the record over. But the records themselves were also changed by their sojourn in the loft or, rather, their sleeves were.  The inner sleeves on ‘Gone to Earth’ now smell like an old library. This does not make me sad.

The new focus on records is slightly different to when records were ‘normal’. There is a stronger focus on the physicality of the object. Stickers emphasise that the records are made with heavyweight vinyl and the contrast between the weight and solidity of records being made now compared to when they were mass-produced objects is palpable.

Feel the weight…

(This all probably makes me sound like some grouchy, middle-aged man afflicted by a grumbly nostalgia. I don’t think I am. Over the years, I have worked my way through a succession of mp3 players and, each time one breaks down, I find it difficult to get rid of them. Their portability means that they occupy a place my life that I value and that records and record players never could.)

Back to ‘Overheard in Doi Saket’, the album of field recordings. I got into field recordings after stumbling upon Framework Radio, via Resonance FM. Field recording attends to aspects of our experience of the environment that is often overlooked (oh, the joy of metaphor). The attention to the sonic environment and how that shapes our experience of place seemed to dovetail with my interest in how we experience objects and how they evoke memory. Framework Radio is produced by Patrick McGinley, who also produces field recordings and compositions under the name of ‘murmer’. His own work often focuses on this network of associations between sounds, physicality and memory. The Framework 500 album contains sounds of the album sleeves being made in McGinley’s local paper factor.

Framework 500 – handmade and lovely.

His own latest album is also an embodiment of these ideas. The thick paper sleeve is embossed with skeletons of leaves, enhancing its tactility. Each album comes with a fragment from abandoned noted books that McGinley found in a nearby ruined mill. The found objects reflect the found sounds used in the compositions on the album. Memory is alluded to throughout the object and the music.

‘Songs for Forgetting’ by murmer (with its very own forgotten fragment).

This is the heart of my fascination with objects – they are ubiquitous and rich in meaning but, being unobtrusive, our interactions with them shape our daily life-experience in ways we don’t often reflect on unless, of course, you have children who oblige you to look at life anew.


Chemero, A. (2003). An Outline of a Theory of Affordances. Ecological Psychology, 15(2), 181-195.

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A plethora of perspectives

It’s been a while (10 months!) since I last posted on this blog. I’ve been studying, and writing a dissertation for, a MSc in Psychology. There were some fascinating potential tangents to explore along the way but it was too much (for me) to try and construct coherent pieces of writing that weren’t work or study. The dissertation has been submitted and I am trying to find the space to read, think and write in a slightly less focused way.

I did the MSc for a variety of reasons. Part of it was simply to gain a piece of paper which showed that I knew stuff. Bourdieu (1986, 2011) observed that the knowledge of the autodidact is always open to question and that qualifications work as a culturally accepted way of vouchsafing a person’s knowledge base. I read this after I started the MSc but recognised it’s pertinence to my own situation. A more positive reason for doing the MSc was that it allowed me to consolidate my knowledge of Psychology (which it definitely did) and, finally, it gave me a chance to explore a topic I’m interested in through my dissertation. Essentially, I was paying to do the research of my own choosing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose to focus on people and objects for my dissertation. But dissertations are funny things: you have to focus down really quickly. Most Masters students start out with questions that are too big for a dissertation and would probably struggle to fit in a PhD. So I knew I needed to be specific.

Subject disciplines represent a way of looking at, and exploring, the world. A lot of researchers start from a particular disciplinary perspective and concomitant methodology and ask: what questions can I usefully address from this perspective? The challenge with starting from a topic is that there are multiple disciplinary perspectives that could usefully be applied to it. So, I was interested in the way that people interact with each other and with objects. In principle, this could be approached from: anthropology; (cognitive) archaeology; consumer studies; design & ergonomics; ethnography; material culture studies; sociology to name a few possibilities. But, of course, I was doing a Psychology dissertation and this sets the terms of what methods and epistemologies are acceptable and what are not. It has been observed that your methods represent your licence to speak to a particular academic community (Suri, 2013). Similarly, compliance with those methods is part of the process of learning in order to be associated with that community. Hence most of the methods associated with that list of disciplines were simply not open to me. In a similar way, certain concepts were also just not allowable. Hope’s (2016) notion of practitioner-researchers who know through working and practice towards a resolution was (sadly) out of the window. The idea that objects have agency, as in Actor-Network Theory, was also clearly out of bounds but I have real issues with this notion so that wasn’t such a problem.

Then there was the issue of whether or not to do something that fell into the category of experimental cognitive research. I did consider doing a study where I showed people images of unfamiliar and familiar objects and measured their responses using an EEG. (It turned out that someone has already done something similar using fMRI.) The (ex-)engineer in me found this deeply appealing but, actually, I was interested in work that reflected daily practices in museums and which could potentially inform ideas of good practice. Furthermore, if you accept that people’s behaviour is shaped by the social situation and by the actions of others then looking at objects in isolation in a lab just won’t be the same as looking, handling and talking about objects with others in a gallery setting.

All this filtering to get to the point where I was sure that I was going to watch people handling unfamiliar, contemporary craft objects. Sorted!! But then how was I going to interpret the data? Cue the familiar experience of wandering innocently into a topic and then discovering all the debates that I was blissfully unaware of. Slowly I began to discover the differences between Conversation Analysis and Pragmatics; the implications of considering gesture as a communicative tool; the emerging fields on the fringes of Psychology which try to hold in balance social and cognitive processes in (embodied) social interaction. Needless to say each of these fields involves academics who, if you put them in a room together would have a polite but fearsome debate about methodologies and epistemologies and (after a few drinks) probably ontologies too. I just wanted to fashion a space that worked for me!

In the end, what I did sat on the fringes of Psychology. It was thoroughly qualitative. I took the [dyad + object] as my unit of study and not the individual. I focused on observational data but followed others who saw interaction emerging out of the interplay of social and cognitive factors. I endeavoured to treat interaction as an embodied process. I tried to hold the tension between Pragmatics (language as meaningful) and Conversation Analysis (interaction as achieving social goals). There was (is) considerably more in the data than I could handle within the constraints of a dissertation. There was (is) also considerably more for me to learn. So, hopefully, I will carve out the time to unpick the data and pursue the topic some more. If I’m really lucky, I might get paid to do it.


Bourdieu, P. (2011). The forms of capital. (1986). Cultural theory: An anthology, 81-93.

Hope, S. (2016) Bursting paradigms: a colour-wheel of practice-research. Cultural Trends, 25(2), 74–86

Suri, H. (2013). Epistemological pluralism in research synthesis methods. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(7), 889–911.


Posted in Cognition, embodiment, object handling, Objects, qualitative methods, research methodology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Brain dump – knowing and sharing

I tried to sit down and read a paper but I’m still banging my head against this idea of different ways of knowing and I couldn’t settle down so I’m going to off-load onto text.

Skinner (him of behaviourism, pigeons, boxes and food pellets) wrote in a paper back in the 60s that you didn’t need statistics. The need for statistics, he argued, was a side-effect of working with the construct of ‘mind’, which was a bad idea from start to finish as far as he was concerned. Skinner didn’t need statistics because he didn’t try to investigate mind. Instead, Skinner researched behaviour. Skinner went on to argue that he knew he was right because he could predictably control behaviour. The proof was in the eating of the pudding rather than in an analysis of the ingredients.

Now,  Skinner’s rants against mind and his expectation of the dawning day when we all gave up on mind and just studied behaviour sound like the ravings of an ill-fated prophet for a doomed ideology. But I like this essay because there is an important idea lurking within it (apart from dismissing statistics): What constitutes valid forms of knowing? And, who are we knowing at?

Deciding who gets to define what is a valid form of knowledge is a form of politics, an exercise in power and in determining which voices are allowed to be heard. I know… this is nothing new. But how do you go about negotiating places at the table? And how do you get people go value and accept other forms of knowledge.

Much of the work on using the arts as a form of creative engagement with older people posits that the arts are an alternative way of communicating and (implicitly) of knowing. Hope’s paper ( which I discussed in the previous blog post) posits practice as a form of tacit knowledge. How do we put these on a par (equal in status but different in other ways) to the ways of knowing that are so familiar and comfortable to those that often have the purse strings (statistical and biological ways of knowing, for instance). How do we de-familiarise those ways of knowing to those knowers so that they become more aware of their own assumptions?

The other question that is bugging me comes back to this idea of sharing practice. If practice is a form of tacit knowledge and if (as according to Collins) tacit knowledge arises as practices are shared in social settings. Then surely the way to share practice is actually through some form of public rehearsal of that practice. Isn’t it?

This brain-dump was prompted by a workshop that I attended yesterday. Before it began I had a lovely chat with a pair of artists about how we went about thinking through stuff. We contrasted my academic scaffold of knowledge with their, more practice based, ways of knowing. The workshop itself included 3sessions that tried very different approaches.

The first, led by the took a much more experiential approach. It was a creative or, at least, meditative session. We were , led to reflect on our experience and you got a sense of how the facilitators go about their practice. It was lovely and insightful. I don’t think we could all go away afterwards and do the same but we might know which direction we needed to head in.

The second took a traditional approach, sharing about their practice but not really conveying any sense of how they do what they do. At the end of it we had a sense of outcomes but you’d have no inkling of how to go about it. (Maybe that was the intention.) Actually, I ended up grinding my teeth as the presenter rolled out the old left brain, right brain, analytical, creative nonsense – I was the epitome of restraint. Mostly.

The third opted for a ‘middle way’ of opening with some experiential work, with us as participants rather than facilitators, followed by some academic scaffolding.

I think that there might be a another option,  which might involve reviewing videos of good practice and thinking together about what works and why. But there are a host of practical issues and ethical hurdles to make that work.

(And breathe…) There, now that’s done I can go back to reading papers rather than staring at them furiously.

Posted in Cognition, research methodology | Leave a comment

Is this me (us)?

I feel that I ought to open with a disclaimer. I am sometimes an educator and sometimes a researcher. One of the things I like about being an educator is the balance of control and improvisation. I am a bodger of makeshift solutions to immediate and temporary problems; an improviser of responses to unforeseen questions. I shy away from the term, ‘creative’. I am not an artist.

So, I was slightly bewildered to experience a sense of recognition when reading a paper on arts practice as research. ‘Bursting paradigms: a colour wheel of practice-research’ (Hope, 2016) looks at the different ways that arts practice and research intersect. She expands the (apparently) traditional distinctions of research into, through and as (for) arts practice into a six-fold spectrum of possibilities.

Hope is looking at arts practices as a research paradigm in the UK and the issues that people have been wrestling with over the last couple of decades. “When framing practice as research there is a tendency to foreground the process. How and why am I going about this and how does it relate to other processes of trying things out in a similar way?” One of the challenges with this is that it foregrounds certain ways of knowing and of communicating that knowledge that don’t necessarily fit well with the academic focus on the written word.

The point where I started to recognise myself, and the work of other museums staff, was where Hope starts to talk about the way that artist-researchers work. “A common thread that perhaps [runs] through practice-research is one where methodologies emerge because of the practice, rather than prior to it. […] [When research starts with practice] questions and methodology emerge through making, doing, and testing things out. Searching might therefore be iterative, improvised, and intuitive resulting in cyclical or reciprocal research dynamics rather than always focusing on searching for the answers to a predefined question.” Later, Hope notes that “practitioner-researchers “do not merely ‘think’ their way through or out of a problem, but rather they ‘practice’ to a resolution””. This last bit feels like a lot of education work – iterating round to a working solution when faced with new challenges or new audiences.

Doesn’t this describe the work that museums’ staff are engaged in as they explore how to work with people with dementia?

I’ve had a couple of lovely conversations with staff at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter about their on-going work in this area. This feels like a good description of what they are doing. And the Active Ageing Officers at Beamish. And, almost certainly, others.

Hope goes on to discuss research paradigms. A research paradigm underlies the ontology, epistemology, and methodology that a researcher might sign up to. It gives clues as to where, philosophically, the researcher is coming from, defined as a shared set of “beliefs and values, laws, and practices which govern a community of practitioners”. […]  “Existing research paradigms include a positivist worldview, which implies research is scientifically verifiable and can be proved or disproved, [and] a non-positivist understanding, implying situated knowledge that acknowledges subjectivity of the researcher and the significance of context. […] How a researcher relates to these different ways of viewing the world will depend on the discipline they are coming from and the focus of their research. Practice-research is often aligned to a non-positivist tradition that uses a qualitative methodology.”

It has to be said that communities of researchers and communities of educators are perhaps less reflexive of their own ontologies and epistemologies than they might be. (Though, to be fair, I usually have to get my dictionary out to make sure I understand what epistemologies are, before I work up to reflecting on my own.) I also find this personally challenging as I was initially trained in a positivist worldview and am trying to cross-over into a non-positivist tradition. (Painful!) However, as Hope notes, while “ontologies might be distinct, approaches, discoveries, and research questions might overlap and interweave.”

It seems that arts-based research paradigms still face various challenges. One is how to establish validity. Another is that, in some cases, “the practice becomes the research itself, rather than a description or illustration of the research”, which means that interested others must engage “with the practice not just a writing-up of the practice.” This is something else I’m trying to get my head around at the moment – how do you effectively share good, creative practice when so much of that practice is based on tacit knowledge? Finally, Hope finds that “practice is not trusted [within academia] […] the dominant paradigms remain intact with a polite nod to alternative ways of working.” I suspect that the same could be true of the various funding and political agencies that museums work with in order to support their work.

On the whole though, it strikes me that this idea of the practitioner-researcher is something that I can usefully appropriate for my own work and one which helpfully re-frames a lot of the work that I see going on in the museums sector, nationally & internationally.


Hope, S. (2016) Bursting paradigms: a colour-wheel of practice-research. Cultural Trends, 25(2), 74 – 86

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The end of a conversation?

I’ve had a couple of conversations which went along the lines of “Have you read the REMCARE report? It shows that reminiscence work has negative effects on participants.” It seemed as though these colleagues felt that this was the end of the conversation. It’s taken a while to getting round to reading the report (and it’s taken even longer to writing this post) but I wanted to summarise some of what it said but also challenge the idea that the REMCARE report is the definitive statement that some people seem to want it to be.

The Executive Summary of the REMCARE study is readily available on-line (Woods et al., 2012a). The full-report (Woods et al., 2012b) is worth reading – there’s a lot of information in the details.

It’s probably worth stating, up front, that I am not committed to the idea that reminiscing is necessarily good for you. The evidence up to this point has generally been ambivalent, at best, and based on small studies. It doesn’t help that there isn’t a single or definitive way of doing reminiscence. Nor am I persuaded by the view that reminiscence is intrinsically bad and we should all just go and do creative work. Even if this conversation did decide against reminiscence, it would still be a fascinating process and it’s the process that interests me.

Secondly, the REMCARE study is an unquestionably impressive piece of work. Bob Woods, one of the lead researchers, had previous published a protocol for how you might go about doing a randomly controlled trial for cultural interventions (Woods et al., 2009) and REMCARE is a fine example of what this looks like: control groups, quantitative measures, careful statistics. The study involved a large number of participants (N = 488) with a mean age of 77.5 years, whose dementia was assessed as part of the research, although they were not able to control for the type of dementia and research has indicated that this is significant (Woods et al., 2012b). The primary outcome measures were self-reported quality of life for the person with dementia and psychological distress for the carer. Secondary outcome measures for the person with dementia included autobiographical memory, depression, anxiety and activities of daily living. The carer reported their stress related to care-giving and their levels of anxiety and depression. Both the carer and the person with dementia rated the quality of the relationship between them. (Woods et al., 2012a)

The study is grounded in an earlier qualitative piece of work evaluating the ‘Remember Yesterday, Caring Today’ (RYCT) reminiscence protocol. (If you want to find an example of a good piece of international, multi-partner work – this is it.) The study found positive impacts for that approach to reminiscence and the leader of that project (Pam Schweitzer) was persuaded to become involved in this quantitative assessment of the approach (Schweitzer, 2013). The intervention consisted of joint reminiscence groups held weekly for 12 consecutive weeks, followed by monthly maintenance sessions for a further 7 months. Each session lasted 2 hours and focused on a different theme, including: childhood, schooldays, working life, marriage, and holidays and journeys. Participants were encouraged to contribute with materials brought from home. Each session blended work in large and small groups, and a range of activities including art, cooking, physical re-enactment of memories, singing and oral reminiscence. The inclusion of the person with dementia is considered paramount. In the joint reminiscence groups facilitators and volunteers guided carers to allow the person with dementia to respond and to value their contribution (Woods et al, 2012a).

The headline findings: The intention-to-treat analysis indicated there were no differences in outcome between the intervention and control conditions on primary or secondary outcomes at the 10-month end point or at the assessment carried out at 3 months. Carers of people with dementia allocated to the reminiscence intervention reported a significant increase in anxiety at the 10-month end point. People with dementia in the intervention group made more use of local authority and NHS day care than those in the treatment as usual group. Economic analyses from a public sector, multiagency perspective indicated that joint reminiscence groups are unlikely to be cost-effective.

In short – not good. As Schweitzer (2013) acknowledges, she and many of her colleagues were hopeful that this study would support the qualitative findings of the earlier study and were deeply disappointed when they did not.

You could end the conversation there but it hasn’t and it probably shouldn’t.

It is worth considering what is included in the reminiscence sessions – “art, cooking, physical re-enactment of memories, singing and oral reminiscence”. This isn’t just sitting around with an object asking people what they remember – this is a broad engagement of the person through the use of personally meaningful objects. I would argue that if the study undermines the value of reminiscence, it also undermines the value of creative work. I don’t think that the people who want to use it to promote creativity, at the expense of reminiscence, can use the REMCARE findings in quite that way.

One of the important negative findings is that the carers reported significantly increased anxiety as a result of participating. I understand (second-hand from a colleague who listened to a talk by Paul Camic) that the increased anxiety was linked to the burden of having to get their partners to the sessions and the tension between the positive behaviours expressed during the session and their ‘normal’ behaviour. (I need to chase this up to be more certain.) There are procedural issues here, the carers actively take part in the sessions and not all reminiscence work is structured that way. So there is a question about the impact on carers where transport is provided and they don’t attend. Based on my own work, I’d argue that this leads to very different carer responses. There is also tension with earlier work, involving sessions with professional carers, which implied that the experience of sharing reminiscence with a person with dementia re-instantiated their personhood, in the eyes of the carer, and positively changes the way that the carer cares for the person with dementia (Zeisel, 2009). The tensions need exploring. The REMCARE study also looked at long-term benefits, rather than proximal and short-term benefits (which many studies focus on). In the full REMCARE report, the authors point to both of these areas in their recommendations for future work (Woods et al, 2012b).

One of the points of the discussion in the full-report is that the data was analysed by allocation only (i.e. was someone in the intervention group or the control) rather than by how many times the person actually attended. Re-analysing the data according to whether people actually attended indicated that there were more positive outcomes for those that attended more weekly sessions (in terms of autobiographical memory, quality of life and quality of relationship with carer). All this suggests that the sessions had some real benefit. However, the carers who accompanied their partners to more sessions reported higher levels of stress, which is consistent with the headline findings.

Schweitzer has written about the findings of the REMCARE study (2013) in which she was open about her responses to the findings. Schweitzer noted how she struggled to reconcile the negative quantitative results with the positive qualitative findings and on-going feedback that she receives from participants (both participants with dementia and carers). She ultimately questioned whether quantitative measures are appropriate to this type of work – which is a huge and on-going debate.

I honestly don’t think that the REMCARE study can be used the way that some of my colleagues appear to want to use it. It clearly problematises any simplistic attempt to laud the therapeutic value of reminiscence (and, I think, creative interventions) but, at the same time, it isn’t a definitive end point to the conversation. Indeed, Schweitzer (amongst other) seem determined to keep the conversation going.


Schwietzer, P. (2013). ‘Reminiscence in Dementia Care’. The International Journal of Reminiscence and Life Review, 1 (1), pp. 42-47.

Woods, R. T., et al. (2009) Reminiscence groups for people with dementia and their family carers: pragmatic eight-centre randomised trial of joint reminiscence and maintenance versus usual treatment: a protocol. Trials, 10:64. Available at

Woods, R. T., et al. (2012a). REMCARE: reminiscence groups for people with dementia and their family caregivers – effectiveness and cost-effectiveness pragmatic multicentre randomised trial (Executive Summary). Health Technology Assessment, 16 (48). Available at

Woods, R. T., et al. (2012a). REMCARE: reminiscence groups for people with dementia and their family caregivers – effectiveness and cost-effectiveness pragmatic multicentre randomised trial (Full report). Health Technology Assessment, 16 (48). Available at

Zeisel, J. (2009) I’m Still Here: A New Philosophy of Alzheimer’s Care Avery: New York


Posted in dementia, measurement of impact, qualitative methods, reminiscence, research methodology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fluid thinking and creativity: constructs and tasks

I recently read an interesting paper which reported a pilot study on the effects of creative reminiscence on people with dementia and their carers (Fletcher & Eckberg, 2014). The paper is helpful in a variety of ways, not least for the ways in which they seek to assess the impact the sessions. One sentence caught my eye and has provoked a bit of ruminating. The sentence was, “Flood and Scharer (2006) proposed that promoting creativity in elders could help them make better adjustments to the challenges of aging, and because it is associated with fluid thinking, may help them remain more self-reliant.”

I confess that, a few months ago, I would have read this and not given it a great deal of thought and I’m left with the impression that the authors also felt that the link between creativity and fluid thinking was fairly unproblematic. I want to make it a bit more problematic.

I have to admit that I’ve not read the Flood & Scharer reference but it is on my list of papers to read. (That list rarely gets shorter!) So, I am going to make some assumptions about what the authors intend, starting with the notion of ‘fluid thinking’.

I’m assuming that the term ‘fluid thinking’ refers to basically the same concept as ‘fluid intelligence’. Fluid intelligence is “a complex human ability that allows us to adapt our thinking to a new cognitive problem or situation” (Jaeggi et al., 2008). It is a construct that emerges out of psychometric intelligence testing. Test scores from across a population are subjected to a statistical technique known as factor analysis, which looks for common sources of variance within the data and then ascribes names and meanings to the different sources of variance. This is not to say that the constructs lack psychological reality: general intelligence scores predict behaviour in domains far removed from the tests themselves whilst crystalline intelligence reflects the episodic knowledge that we accumulate over time. However, the constructs are not predicated on any understanding of how the brain works.

One really contentious issue is whether we can deliberately improve these forms of intelligence. I recently had to hand-write at speed an essay on this topic and I’m not going to regurgitate it here. The short version is that whilst it is obvious that crystalline intelligence grows over our lifetime, the question of how amenable fluid intelligence is to intervention is a source of on-going academic debate.

To be clear: we have this construct, ‘fluid intelligence’ and we have tasks that test or assess (aspects of) that construct. Experimental work has shown that training on a task can improve performance on that task but it is less than clear whether those improvements can transfer over to other tasks which also draw on aspects of fluid intelligence (“far transfer”). The paper by Jaeggi et al. (2008) was one of the first papers to apparently demonstrate far transfer. But a later attempt at repeating the study, with a more rigorous procedure, failed to replicate the findings (Redick et al., 2013) (To add further complexity to the situation both of these papers are looking at both fluid intelligence and working memory. Working memory is a different psychological construct with a different academic lineage which, everyone seems to agree, ought to have something to do with fluid intelligence even if everyone can’t agree what that relationship might be!) Subsequent reviews of studies (e.g. Shinvaer, 2014) have similarly failed to agree on whether far transfer has been achieved.

I haven’t even factored aspects of cognitive ageing into this and, alas, they are relevant. Nevertheless, the upshot of this is that the claim that creativity can promote fluid thinking needs to be treated with a lot more caution.

Furthermore, having wrestled with these various constructs and the problematic links between construct and task-demand… I’ve begun to question the construct of ‘creativity’. There have been various attempts to define creativity (e.g., Ken Robinson’s definition which underpinned the Creative Partnerships programme) but without a great deal of consensus. Without a clear construct it is difficult to set it up as a causal or explanatory factor. Without a clear construct the relationship between creativity and other constructs is equally problematic.

In the Fletcher and Eckberg paper, the participants were also given ‘attention control’ activities. This seems to suggest that attention control has some sort of relationship to creativity..? It certainly features in some models of working memory.

I acquired a new motto last term: “It’s not a mess, it’s complicated.” The caveat to the motto being: “(if it can be disaggregated)”. If creativity can be disaggregated then there is a better chance that we could demonstrate clearer links to other psychological constructs and perhaps tease apart what goes on in rich (if not messy) therapeutic encounters.

Fletcher, T.S. & Eckberg, J.D. (2014). The Effects of Creative Reminiscing on Individuals with Dementia and Their Caregivers: A Pilot Study. Physical & Occupational Therapy In Geriatrics, 32(1), 68-84

Flood M, Scharer K. (2006). Creativity enhancement: Possibilities for successful aging. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 27, 939–959

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2015 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,900 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 32 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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