Nicky Clayton Clive Wilkins

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The British Library~ Memory Matters~ The Art and Science of the Brain~ Alexander Brown reflects on the recent Memory Matters event.

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12 November 2015

Memory Matters: The Art and Science of the Brain

Alexander Brown reflects on the recent Memory Matters event in collaboration with UCL Neuroscience.

If I wanted to define ‘Memory Matters: The Art and Science of the Brain’ with a quote, it would be the words of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen in “Alice Through the Looking Glass”: ‘It is a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.’ In short, it was too fine an evening to be terse about.

Memory matters programme

The Memory Matters event programme

In the erudite setting of the British Library, sheltered from familiar London screeches, the event appropriately began with an example of procedural memory, the tango. The passionate and strangely grave dancers were scientist and artist collaborators Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins, whose theme was mental time travel. Clive introduced memory as a subjective yet shared experience allowing exploration of the past, prediction of the future, and the envisioning of imaginary worlds. Nicky then spoke of mental time travel in science. The hippocampus, the hub of declarative memory, was introduced, and the consequences of its destruction portrayed through a heartrending video interview of musician and amnesiac Clive Wearing. With only a moment-to-moment consciousness, the absence of the permanent marker of the past abandoned his present to mere thoughts, passing away one by one into oblivion. This man, who had no memory of having eaten, tasted or touched, nevertheless stated: “consciousness has to involve me”. This was followed by the story of a study on caching food in that remarkable bird, the jay. When left in either a ‘breakfast room’ or a ‘hungry room’ over a series of nights, the jay was five times more likely to store food in the ‘hungry room’ the next morning.  This demonstrated the jays ability to plan for the future, bettering small children in that activity.

Clive then spoke on the role of mental time travel for the artist. As Carroll alluded to, humans are the only species that allow time to move in two directions, via thought. This process is coloured by our culture, history, and mistakes.  Sir Frederick Bartlett, experimenting on subjects asked to recall fragments of Canadian Indian folklore, revealed how our memories can rewrite history according to self-serving preconceptions. The Moustachio Quartet, a tetralogy of novels penned by the speaker himself, mines mental time travel for ‘tools in the artist’s toolkit’. The four books can be read in any order, giving the reader power to distort and reinterpret the action of the novels just as our imagination or the order of events might reshape our reality. This phenomenological approach to memory, in which phones and teacups are mere extensions of our being, is both individualistic and also shared, and from it spring the ideas (and prejudices) of society. Memory becomes our social organization. As was discussed following an insightful question from the audience, this collective vision is one of many possible visions, equally as subjective as the individual one, and certainly less sincere.

Interval activities

Interval activities at Memory Matters event

Three breakout rooms were on show during the interval. The first, ‘Perceptions of Dementia’, hosted by the Alzheimer’s Society challenged assumptions. Film and discussion provided the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone with dementia, enduring the difficulty of making a cup of tea and desperation on busy London streets. The second, ‘Forgetting to Fly’, celebrated the fruit fly in modern neuroscience, displaying common tests of locomotion and one using the flies’ moreish tastes for cider vinegar and rotting banana to test its memory. This room was hosted by early career researchers from UCL’s Institute of Healthy Ageing. The third, ‘Voices of Science’, provided an online collective, subjective memory of oral histories from past greats from British science and technology.

On returning to the lecture theatre, ‘I Remember Things’ showcased the talents of Chris Rawlins, who, treating memory as a ‘muscle’ to be trained, was able to recall street names and places in London based only on map grid references given to him by members of the audience. He followed this with a demonstration of a memory-improving technique, and some fantastic feats of photographic memory.

Memory Matters performers

Memory Matters performers (L-R: Hugo Spiers, Chris Rawlins, Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins)

Finally Hugo Spiers brought us back ‘from tap dancing to facts’, giving an overview of the ‘abnormal’ brains of London taxi drivers, whose posterior hippocampus swells as they commit London’s many streets to memory. We learnt that the posterior hippocampus is more active the greater its options, such as when stepping out onto a sunlit courtyard without anywhere in particular to go. A very elegant experiment on rats was described, where the rodents were shown rice beyond a barrier in a particular inaccessible location. Following sleep, they tested the frequency at which they later made the correct turning towards the area with the rice, now available. The results showed that rats – quite splendidly – appear to dream of the future, emphasizing the role the past plays in planning ahead. The rat creates a map of the future with echoes of the past, simulating its future journey, like London cabbies, in the hippocampus.

The amnesiac Clive Wearing obsessed over possessing ‘the captured thought’, among the many that forever evaded his consciousness. In Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée, across an oneiric sequence of black-and-white stills, the main character rejects the ‘real’ world in favour of a memory with the woman of his dreams. Without spoiling a wonderful film further, I wondered how different and yet how identical the two wishes were, and how bound we are to memory and identity, which, if not entirely mythological beasts, transcend our reason and science. Making these connections was of course why we all presented ourselves at the doorstep in the first place. I congratulate the British Library, UCL Neuroscience and all involved on a very exciting effort at bridging art and science.

Alexander F Brown (PhD student, Department of Molecular Neuroscience, UCL Institute of Neurology)

PS. If you missed out on this event then stay tuned! A highlights video will be available soon

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IMG_8951IMG_8939IMG_8953IMG_8960IMG_8958IMG_8956Nicky Clayton

Prof. Nicky Clayton passing the time of day with Sir David Attenborough during the conference.

Nicky Clayton Clive Wilkins

Above. Speakers dinner at The Royal Society of Edinburgh.  Below. Post dinner fun~ Susan Attenborough, Sir David, Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins relax after a successful day.David Attenborough Nicky Clayton Clive Wilkins

Roger Penrose Clive Wilkins

Above. Clive Wilkins with Sir Roger Penrose, Mathematician, Physicist, Philosopher~ University of Oxford. Below. During the course of the conference Nicky and Clive were  filmed and interviewed for Whizzaquiz, a schools televised broadcast in which bright young minds are given the opportunity to pose questions about the speakers and their work.

Nicky Clayton Clive WilkinsNicky Clayton Clive Wilkins


Posted in Artiscience, ASCUS, Cambridge, Clare College, Clive Wilkins, Colin Sanderson, Department of Psychology, Edinburgh Neuroscience, James Howie, Jane Haley, Prof. Nicky Clayton, The Moustachio Quartet, The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Tresham Institute, Uncategorized, University of Cambridge, Uppingham, Wellcome Trust | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The CAPTURED THOUGHT visits ASCUS, Edinburgh~ where art meets science.

IMG_0733 Prof. Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins (The Captured Thought), introduced by Dr. James Howie, Director of ASCUS, at Summerhall, Edinburgh.

Clive Wilkins Nicky Clayton



Nicky Clayton Clive WilkinsThe Captured Thought was recently invited to visit and lecture at ASCUS, the Edinburgh based organisation dedicated to bridging the gap between the Arts and Sciences.

Nicola Clayton and Clive Wilkins, scientist and artist respectively, explore the complex relationship between memory, and our ability to travel backwards and forwards in the mind’s eye, incorporating Nicky’s research on corvids, and Clive’s newly published work ‘The Moustachio Quartet’, a series of novels that can be read in any order. Join them both for a fascinating talk looking at how they incorporate various aspects of science, art and the performing arts in their work.

“We don’t remember what happened. What we remember becomes what happened. As in life, stories rely heavily on the sequence in which events unfold. In truth, our memories are as much about what will happen next, as about what has already occurred~ it would be a poor sort of memory that only worked backwards.”
– Nicola Clayton and Clive Wilkins

Nicola Clayton is Professor of Comparative Cognition in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. Nicky is psychologist, ornithologist and dancer. She has written numerous publications on cognition in crows and children. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2010 and she is Scientist-in-Residence at Rambert (formerly Ballet Rambert).
Clive Wilkins is Artist-in-Residence in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. Clive is a writer, fine art painter, and dancer. His paintings have been frequently exhibited in London, including The National Portrait Gallery. His recently published novels ‘The Moustachio Quartet’ were featured at the UK’s leading literary festival at Hay-on-Wye.

Nicky Clayton James HowieDr. James Howie and Prof. Nicky Clayton in the lab above and exploring Colin Sanderson’s Artiscience library below. In addition, Nicky and Clive had a fascinating discussion with artists and lecturers from Edinburgh Art College and neuroscientists, including  Dr. Jane Haley, Edinburgh Neuroscience Scientific Coordinator~ about plans to develop an interdisciplinary Arts/Science Masters programme.
IMG_9067The splendid and ancient lecture lecture in which The Captured Thought lecture was given. It was pleasure to work in such a lovely auditorium.IMG_9075Clive and Nicky were latter able to meet the indefatigable Richard Dimarco, Scotland’s most famous art dealer and exhibition programmer~ the man who introduced Joseph Beuys to the UK.Nicky Clayton Clive Wilkins Richard Dimarco

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Cultural Capital Exchange at St. Georges House, Windsor Castle. Dinner Debate from STEM to STEAM. The role of Arts, Science & Culture

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Above. Mark Miodownik, Daniel Glaser, Nicky Clayton and Sue (Siobhan) Davies. Below. Clive Wilkins.

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‘La Jetee’ & ‘The Moustachio Quartet’ at The Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

La Jetee

The CAPTURED THOUGHT~ Prof.Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins recently presented a screening of Chris Marker’s’ ‘La Jetee’ accompanied by readings taken from ‘The Moustachio Quartet’. There followed a  discussion of the themes involved in both works. The evening ended with an audience Q&A of scientific research and ideas concerning memory and cognition.

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The Captured Thought~ North American Tour to New York and Boston~ including Convergent Minds Conference.


The tour, in addition to attending and delivering a lecture to the Convergent Minds Conference in Boston, was an opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues. We began in New York where we met Prof. Robert Lurtz, of NYU; Mike Ruane, CEO of Revelation Software; the journalist Michael Balter; and Prof. Denis Peli, of NYU.

Nicky Clayton IMG_8315 IMG_8350


After this we moved out to Boston  where we presented our work to the Convergent Minds conference~ there was time and opportunity during our stay to hang out with notable Harvard Professors and luminaries of cognition and memory~ most notably the scintillating Dan Gilbert and his wife Marilynn, and the amazing Dan Schacter.

Clive Wilkins Nicky Clayton Dan Gilbert  Dan Gilbert and Marilynn  Clive Wilkins Nicky Clayton Dan Schacter

There were many highlights during our visit~ not least of which were the great cities.



Clive WilkinsIMG_8362

Posted in Cambridge, Cambridge Literary Festival, Cambridge University Festival of Ideas, Cambridge University Science Festival, Clare College, Clive Wilkins, Dan Gilbert, Dan Schacter, Denis Peli, Department of Psychology, Mike Ruane, Murray Shanahan, Prof. Nicky Clayton, Robert Lurtz, The Moustachio Quartet, The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Tresham Institute, Uncategorized, Uppingham, Wellcome Collection | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment