“Dorthe Berntsen sees it as one of her most important research goals to correct the current dominant understanding that our memory is a process that we in a large sense control ourselves. The idea is that the memory acts a certain way, for example, when you’re taking an exam, or if you’re in a lab. This is the idea traditionally followed in memory research, an idea that might be appealing because it is the most easy and controllable approach. But it means that you overlook how memories work in our natural environment. Here, the memory processes are dynamic and contextual to optimize the likelihood that a given memory has an adaptive meaning here and now. Memories will relate to the environment at all times, and the things you remember will substantively overlap with the situation you’re in. It is naturally harder to study memory when you have to include the connection between organism and environment, and it will take a long time to develop the methods. In the beginning, it wasn’t mainstream, but this idea has started to gain a footing in many other places in the research environment.
“One of the first things that happen when you get Alzheimer’s is that it becomes hard to remember things you have experienced. What we try to do is to go in and stimulate the memories with the help of the insight we have from examining the memory processes with healthy people. Some of what we have learned is that memories are extremely sensitive in regard to the environment, and the environment is part of facilitating our memory. We are collaborating with Den Gamle By [an open-air museum in Aarhus]. Some of what we do is that we give items to people hit by Alzheimer’s.. For example, we might give them items from the 1950s: a cardboard box and a box of cigarettes, Green Cecil, or some other nostalgic artifact. We also use movie clips: YouTube is an amazing resource for us, a treasure trove with things Alzheimer’s patients were attached to in their younger years or in childhood. In the project we just started, we can see how they come alive and say: ‘Well, this is Ove Sprogøe…’.”
You can read the full portrait of Professor Dorthe Berntsen (in Danish) by downloading the chapter below.