Interview 34. – Dr Rob Nash

Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Aston University in Birmingham. He conducts research on memory and cognition, focusing particularly on understanding factors that bias our memories, or that lead us to remember past events incorrectly.
Twitter: @DrRobNash

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I feel like I should describe a really lovely, positive example. But… here’s what first came to mind: Near to where I work, there’s a business whose owner recently put out a sign, proudly offering a freebie to any customer who could convince them that the Earth is not flat. That amazed me. Actually, recently I just feel continually amazed by how readily some people reject and deny even the most blatant and fundamental facts. But I guess this instance was different because even though you hear about this kind of stuff online or on TV, this was something tangible and nearby. It gave me the realisation that even some of the ordinary people I pass in the street have these kinds of scary beliefs (and I’d bet they never gave away their freebie, either).

I actually even teach some of this stuff, but it still amazes me how robustly people can convince themselves of indefensible beliefs, that momentous world events never happened, that entirely fictional events did happen, that that science is just a mass conspiracy, and up is down. All of this stuff seems to be going on all the time these days. How does it make me feel? I suppose really very confused, worried, and frustrated at how these kinds of worldview are even a thing.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

This is a tough question! I guess I see some kind of ordering to these…I see curiosity as more of a low-level inquisitiveness, a response to something that for whatever reason attracts a person’s attention or intrigue, and then demands that they explore it further. And I suppose wonder is one possible outcome whenever this curiosity isn’t easily resolved. It’s a sense of needing to appreciate something that isn’t immediately or easily appreciable. And awe I’d see as the realisation that this wonder is insurmountable – it’s like an overwhelming, positive sense that something is impossible to fathom or explain. But actually, maybe you can actually forget about putting these in an order, because maybe awe sometimes provokes curiosity – like thinking, maybe I can’t understand this huge thing, but what about this small aspect of it, how does that bit work? That’s definitely what science is like.


What inspires you to be creative?

I’ve always been pretty creative; at school I used to love art and design, and I remember some of my art teachers being a bit miffed that I ultimately pursued science instead. But whether or not I realised it at the time, doing science is very much a creative thing too. Society so often represents science as a world in which (white) people in white coats follow equations and measure things. This representation of science fails to highlight the innovation and collaboration that go into identifying the problems, asking questions, and figuring out how to solve them. So scientific research is very much a creative and social process, and on a personal level I’d say the most enjoyable parts of science are definitely the creative and social bits!


Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?

The only thing I know for sure is that creativity is almost impossible to force. Most of my more creative ideas emerge when I’m around friends or collaborators, especially when being creative perhaps isn’t the goal. In contrast, creativity comes very rarely when I sit and try to think creatively, and even less easily when I’m under time pressure to generate ideas. I reckon creativity normally happens most effectively when you’re not looking, and that four office walls and a deadline are the best weapons for killing it.


What do you love about magic?

No-one needs remotely to believe in magic (in its supernatural sense) to be captivated by magic (in its performative sense). In fact, quite the opposite: a healthy skepticism enriches the enjoyment of magic. As a scientist and a teacher, one of the most important skills that we try to instil in our students is critical thinking – the ability to look at some kind of scientific claim or finding, and to turn it upside down, give it a shake about, and examine the evidence closely to see how well it really stacks up. In my experience critical thinking is perhaps the single skill that students find the most challenging to develop and to demonstrate. In the context of magic, though, this isn’t the case at all. When we watch a magic trick, our very first gut instinct is to try and figure out how it’s done: we look for hidden wires, sleights of hand, mirrors, trapdoors, sneaky camera angles, or whatever, and we try to generate ideas to explain what we are seeing. In magic, critical thinking isn’t this excruciatingly difficult skill that takes years to hone and master, it’s a knee-jerk reaction. Maybe this shows that we’re teaching critical thinking all wrong!


What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?

I think one problem is that although the space between needing answers and having answers can be a “wonderful” (literally) space, for many people it’s now experienced more and more as a frustrating space. People nowadays have less time, we multi-task, and we’re accustomed to having Google on-hand to answer their questions immediately. Maybe we have less appetite and patience for wonder than might have been the case a decade or two ago. This is a battle that both magicians and teachers have in common. How can we force people to treat not-knowing, even temporarily, as a motivator rather than as a frustrator?


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

There’s a perspective in classic social psychology that says we are all “naïve scientists”, going about our lives conducting thousands of micro-level real-world experiments with the ultimate goal of being able to predict the world around us. I think there’s some truth in this – we’re pretty much hard-wired to seek order and predictability in chaos. From an evolutionary angle, it’s pretty functional after all to be able to predict future events based on past events, and to learn from experience rather than rely on trial and error. Wonder seems like a great vehicle for motivating this kind of learning, right?

As for cultivating wonder? I suppose people have to care about the problem before they’ll ever care about the solution. When people see a magic trick that they can’t explain, they could just think to themselves  “Hey, that was cool”, and not really think about it much more. But if they can be led to experience this lack of explanation as somehow personally relevant or disorienting – something that affects them, even if only momentarily – then they’re probably more likely to get that sense of wonder and the nagging need for resolution. That’d be my guess, anyway.


How reliable are our memories? And is it true they can be manipulated?

Answering the question about reliability sort of depends on how high your expectations are. If you were to ask me how many of the past events that you remember genuinely happened, then my answer would probably be “most of them, but not all of them”. In that respect, memory is generally pretty reliable as record of the past – of those parts that aren’t completely forgotten, anyway. But if you were to ask me how many of those past events genuinely happened in the exact way you remember them, then my answer would probably be “relatively few of them, if any”. In that respect memory is a pretty unreliable record of the past. So it very much depends on your perspective of what counts as reliable!

For several reasons, people find it hard to accept that their memories might be inaccurate; nevertheless thousands of studies have shown, in many different ways, the susceptibility of our memories to small and large errors. When we retrieve a memory, what we’re really remembering is our most recent ‘re-telling’ of that story, rather than the original event itself. And what this means is that over time and over multiple re-tellings, the details of a memory can gradually (or sometimes, quite rapidly) drift away from the original, accurate details.

And yes, that means that other people can manipulate your memory, too! All they really need to do is slip a detail or a suggestion into discussion, especially one that’s easy to imagine and is plausible enough to slip under the radar. The next time you retrieve the event, there’s a chance that this detail or suggestion could then have become part of your story, one that will then be remembered on each subsequent occasion. Numerous studies have shown that with sufficient time, suggestion, and mental imagery, people can even be led to remember in some considerable detail personal experiences that never happened at all. So no, don’t always trust what you remember!


Do you doubt your own experiences?

After my previous answer, I suppose I should really say “Yes, absolutely”, shouldn’t I? But in truth I’m a hypocrite, I don’t really doubt my memories! I think having spent the last 11+ years studying memory errors has made me far more attuned to the possibility, whenever my memory doesn’t fit with someone else’s, that I could possibly be wrong. But nevertheless I’m still human, so I have enough cognitive biases at hand to ensure that I never have to entertain this possibility for too long. It’s just as easy to use my science to explain how and why the other person must be mistaken instead. So I admit it, I’m fallible and I’m easily biased! My memories feel just as compelling and convincing to me as anyone else’s memories feel to them, and simply knowing that mine could be false doesn’t really make me any more likely to suspect that they actually are false.


There has been some research into the experience and memory of traumatic events (for example painful medical procedures). Some of the findings for how to minimise the memory of pain are counter-intuitive. Flipping this around, how can we maximise memories of positive experiences? Anything a performer could do in their acts to enhance the memory?

Hmm… well they might think about various quite intuitive things such as finishing on a high note (don’t place your showstopper right in the middle of the show, where it’s most forgettable), and finding ways to enhance the distinctiveness (especially visual distinctiveness) of the material – even just by being a bit random so that there’s something unique that helps the memory to deteriorate less quickly. Luckily, simply ensuring that the show is *interesting* can be enough to strengthen memory, and if it were me I’d probably be looking to involve things like humour, active involvement (audience participation??), repetitive elements or themes, and so forth. And maybe thinking about ways to incorporate an element of rehearsal/recapping too, if possible. It won’t be too shocking for me to say that basic rehearsal is a key memory-enhancing strategy, so maybe towards the end of the act you’d want to be drawing the audience’s attention back to key things that happened earlier, if there’s a way to achieve that without it looking forced/awkward.

Or maybe, with memory distortions in mind, maybe you just want to hire a load of stooges to hang around after the show and discuss loudly how amazing the act was. It’s plausible that this social influence would be enough to get people to remember the act in a more positive way than they otherwise might. Maybe doing that would be unethical… Or maybe that’s exactly the kind of sneaky tactic that marketeers clocked onto decades ago!


What would you want to be remembered for?

Sheesh… am I writing my own eulogy here?

Most of the time I love what I do, and so of course it’d be great if some of this were to have a lasting impact. But in academia I’ve often heard the following advice: “You’re all smart; distinguish yourself by being kind”. I like this mantra. So although I take my work seriously, at the same time I try not to take myself too seriously, and I try not to be a dick to people. Anyone who describes me otherwise *definitely* has a false memory.

What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.

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