Archives for : March2014

Does Memory Rewrite History?

Rob Elder interviews Donna J. Bridge, Ph.D., for a podcast on Feb. 6th, 2014.


Time heals all wounds, or so the adage goes.

Yet, Dr. Donna Bridge takes issue with that.

“Partly we forget and partly we change our memories,” says Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

In essence, our memory rewrites the past, as Bridge and co-author Joel Voss wrote in the newest issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

In this episode of “The Big Questions” podcast, we ask: “How do memories rewrite history?”

Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation in which we address what her research means for eyewitness testimony and dating. It can be downloaded via iTunes, SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube. ”The Big Questions” is part of the Sun-Times Media Local Podcast Network.


Q: Part of your study says that memory is not a video camera. Can you explain that?

Donna Bridge: Well, our memory is constantly changing. So we have also shown how every time you recall an experience that increases the likelihood that you’ll remember that event in the future. So recalling a memory is good for your memory …

But every time you recall an experience, you tend to, I don’t know, mix up details, distort people’s names or places … things like that. And so what ends up happening is that you tend to remember whatever you recalled last. So if you recalled something incorrectly, the next time you will recall that incorrect fact.


Q: Okay, that is frightening. As a researcher, how does this affect your relationship with your own memory?

Bridge: Well, not that much because of how I see memory … our memory is distorted, it’s not accurate. I just don’t see that as being the primary function of memory. Instead I see it as an adaptive process that allows us to interact with our environment and go through life as a good person. … I think that our memories inform our behavior and that sometimes changing our memories to fit our current experiences is actually a good thing.


Q: How can we know anything at all about ourselves, about history?

Bridge: You learn especially as you get older, with history that what is in the history books wasn’t at all a reality. We kind of make up our own paths as we go, and I think it is a good thing. We have this narrative of our lives and I think that says a lot more about who we are than actually the experiences we have happen to us. And even how we responded to those experiences. I think it is more so how we look back on those experiences that really shape us.


Q: The New Yorker recently did a retrospective on William S. Burrows and he remembered being molested as a 4-year-old. Axl Rose also had this sort of memory [of sexual abuse]. Now this is in the news again with Dylan Farrow accusing Woody Allen of molesting her as a child. So what does this mean for that kind of memory?

Bridge: My perspective on the childhood memories is that I would never want to be a jury member on one of those cases. Maybe it’s possible that these memories have been suppressed for a long time and then finally they’re coming up.

With the Dylan Farrow case, it sounded like it was a known thing, and now it’s just coming out. That’s more believable to me than never realizing it. Just having some issues all your life and then 20 years later suddenly realize, “I was molested as a child!” I think that is a lot less likely to be true than something that just hasn’t been out in the open.

Events that are recalled after they’ve been experienced are much more likely to be remembered than events that are never recalled. So, if you have never recalled something, it is very unlikely that suddenly 20 years later it will surface.

But that being said, emotional memories also add a little bit, a different flair to these processes. So for instance, this study I’ve done and how we insert new information to our memories, I haven’t done that with any kind of emotional material to see if that’s true. I have a hunch that it might be similar, but it operates in a little bit different level.


Q: We should point out that Woody Allen denies all the allegations and was never charged. And this story rages on.

Bridge: Here is the other interesting thing mainly about it … so let’s say it’s not true. I still wouldn’t blame Dylan Farrow, because I bet that she really believes it happened.

It is not that somebody is intentionally lying – our memories actually change and that’s what we think happened. … I don’t think that they’re out to get somebody. I think they really, genuinely believe and have high confidence in their memory. It’s just … it may have changed, but how can we prove it one way or the other?


Q: Although your research doesn’t directly deal with childhood trauma, what does it mean for those kinds of cases?

Bridge: Like I just said, it casts doubt on it, but I would hate to be a jury member because – even as an expert – who I am to go and say, your memory is wrong?

Unless you have actual evidence to prove one way or the other, and like I said, emotional memories are typically very strong, and maybe they’re less susceptible to change, I do not know. I would doubt it, but it’s possible.

Listen to the entire episode via SoundCloud.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Woody Allen’s rebuttal letter to the New York Times, which can be read here.

Dylan Farrow’s original letter can be read here.

“What Does Our Music Say About Us?” with Greg Kot

Greg Kot

For Greg Kot, music is a complicated puzzle and the highest form of expression.

“I love music because you’re sort of decoding these languages, and you’re learning about the way somebody thinks, their logic,” says Kot, co-host of “Sound Opinions” on WBEZ and pop music critic at the Chicago Tribune.

In his new book, “I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom’s Highway,” Kot chronicles the history of the first family of gospel crossover music from early stardom, through the civil rights era to present day.

But at its core, the book is not only a work of American history — its also an examination of how music moves and shapes culture.

In this episode of “The Big Questions” podcast, we ask: “What Does Our Music Say About Us?”

Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation — in which we talk about Bob Dylan’s proposal to Mavis Staples, the prickliness of Lou Reed and the films of Roman Polanski — can be downloaded via iTunes, SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube. “The Big Questions” is part of the Sun-Times Media Local Podcast Network.


Q: You’ve done something really amazing with this book—you’ve not only managed to tell Mavis Staples’ story, but it’s also about the African-American move north and the struggle for civil rights … What does music tells us about ourselves and our culture?

Kot: To me, the music is part of the culture, part of the fabric of who we are as people. And so music bio is one aspect of the book … there’s a richer story informed by the music.

This family, the Staples Singers: They had a front row seat in a lot of these events that were life-changing … The Martin Luther King era, the civil rights era, they had a huge run of hits at Stax [Records] and defined the soul and message music era in the ’70s. And then this comeback by Mavis – here she is in her 70s making some of the best music of her life. Through that, she’s experienced basically the story of the African-American community as seen through this family. That’s what I try to tell in this book.


Q: For a lot of people, music is rebellion. And for Mavis, her grandmother did not want the family to sing anything but church music.

Kot: Right. Church music was a defining line between spirituals, gospel and blues …What was interesting about Pops [Mavis’ father], is that he saw both sides. So he learned the blues, but at the same time he was in gospel groups. That was what his family sang. And later on in life he was able to meld those things.

What was interesting to me about this group is how they sort of fell outside these genre tags. People were constantly trying to pigeonhole them. They were being decried as backsliders by some members of the gospel community, because they weren’t gospel enough.

And Pops was kind of like, “Well maybe so, but I’m not here to send some illicit message … I’m here to empower people, and I’m here to spread this message to as many people as want to hear it. So I’m not discriminating against who needs to hear this music or who doesn’t want to hear it. I want to reach a lot of people.”


Q: Changing topics: Is there a need to separate the art from the artist? Whether it’s a Justin Bieber or R. Kelly or Led Zeppelin … Is there a need to separate bad, sometimes illegal behavior from the art itself?

Kot: Yeah, I believe you have to. You and I have probably read enough about these legendary figures to know that they weren’t always nice people: Picasso, Miles Davis, James Brown …

All my artistic heroes had some really dark sides to their personalities. These weren’t stellar human beings necessarily all the time or admirable human beings. They did things that we don’t think are very cool, and in some cases just downright despicable. So yeah, you do have to separate the art from the artist. There is no doubt about it. If we judged our artists strictly by how nice they are, we would have very little art to appreciate.

I don’t believe in insulating yourself from the bad things that people do when you’re judging a work of art. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that even a monster can create something beautiful.


Q: What, ultimately, is the function of music?

Kot: It is one of the reasons for living. I really believe that. It is one of the highest forms of human expression if not the highest form.

What I think is beautiful about music is the intangibility of it. I do not know quite how to express it … but in terms of the senses that we have, the visual is one of the strongest impressions that can be made on us.

It is so ephemeral … it floats in and out of our lives. It can be background, it can be foreground, it can be inside our head between our ears. There is just something beautiful about that and I think it really is a metaphor for life itself in a lot of ways.


Q: But is it a connection thing at its base? Is it really that we’re a community and we’re not alone? Is that a primary function of music?

Kot: It brings us together as people. There is no doubt about it. Even when we don’t realize it. It does make you feel like there’s one other being out there that understands something about your psyche. It’s like, “Oh, that really spoke to me. This person has no idea who I am. [The artist] who made this piece of music is something really beautiful that I can relate to.

And it may be for a completely opposite reason than the person creating it intended. But at the same time, that is the beauty of it too, is that it is so abstract. And it allows for so many readings of what it really means.

This excerpt was edited for length and context. Visit Greg Kot online at

Is Nostalgia Dangerous?


Nostalgia, says Steve Darnall, is like a drug.

“If used in moderation it can probably be very helpful,” he says. “And if used excessively, it can cause disorientation, and you kind of lose track of where you are.”

And Darnall should know. As editor of Nostalgia Digest and host of the old time radio show“Those Were the Days” on WDCB in Glen Ellyn, Darnall has spent more time listening to our past than most.

“I like to think of it as inexpensive time travel,” Darnall says.

In this episode of “The Big Questions,” La Grange native Darnall talks about what we can learn from our media ancestors and how nostalgia can serve us now.

Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation can be downloaded via iTunes, SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube. “The Big Questions” is part of the Sun-Times Media Local Podcast Network.

Q: Is nostalgia dangerous?

Steve Darnall: I think like a lot of drugs, if used in moderation it can probably be very helpful. And if used excessively, it can cause disorientation, and you kind of lose track of where you are.

Chuck Schaden, who started the Nostalgia Digest and “Those Were the Days,” always had a good quote, which I’ve lived by: “We are living with the past. We are not living in it.” It is a real danger to live in the past because, as the saying goes, “Nostalgia is never what it used to be.”

Q: You’ve spent more time listening to dead people than Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.” So my question is, what have you learned listening to all those hours of old radio broadcasts?

Darnall: To be really pretentious about it, I suppose, the sense that I’d like to think of it as inexpensive time travel.

That you learn something about the time in which it was produced. Whether it was how people lived, how they bought their cigarettes and their soap, what they thought was funny and entertaining. Some of that humor from 60, 70, 80 years ago has not aged especially well. Some of it has aged beautifully.

Q: What is the difference between sentimentality and nostalgia?

Darnall: That’s an excellent question.

Nostalgia I have always rather flippantly described as something that used to be one way and now it isn’t. The sentimentality obviously can be part and parcel of that …

Sentiment is valuable because it reminds us, I think, at the heart of who we are. I think it is the reason that all of us flock to “A Christmas Carol” every year, whether it is stage show or the movies.

Virtually every year on “Those Were the Days,” we play a production of “A Christmas Carol,” usually with Lionel Barrymore, who did Scrooge for so many years. And I think the thing about that story, that works so beautifully is the sentiment. At its heart, it tries to reminds us that all of us have the capacity to be better than we can be.

Q: It seems to me, that nostalgia is a moving target depending on which generation you are and as generations get older and so my question … is there time when Nostalgia Digest has Led Zeppelin on the cover?

Darnall: No. For one thing, Led Zeppelin’s been pretty well covered. I want to give [Rolling Stone founder] Jann Wenner a break. I think Rolling Stone deserves a leg up in some area [laughs].


This excerpt was edited for length and context. Visit Nostalgia Digest online at:

How Do You Overcome Amnesia?


To some extent, all memoirs are about self-discovery.

But David Stuart MacLean’s memoir, “The Answer to the Riddle is Me,” is about the ultimate self-discovery: Trying to find out who you are after amnesia.

In 2002, MacLean found himself a blank slate, wide awake on a train platform in India. After a short time in a psych ward, MacLean’s world returned slowly and he learned that his amnesia had been a side effect of an anti-malaria drug called Lariam. The book documents MacLean’s winding road to rediscover — and reshape — himself.

In this inaugural edition of The Big Questions Podcast, part of the Sun-Times Media Local’s new podcast network, MacLean talks about how memory forms our sense of self, how he lives in fear of amnesia recurring and what memories have shaped him since his time in India. Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation can be downloaded via iTunes, SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube.

MacLean opens his national book tour with a 7 p.m. reading tonight (Tuesday, January 14) at The Book Stall in Winnetka.

Q: How do you explain to people what amnesia feels like?

MacLean: Well, what you do is you end up taking whatever is at hand. So the first moment … I just opened my eyes and that train station is seared onto me. And that moment I remember really well – because the first moment of waking up without any memory, I was kind of fine. I was looking around. But once I realized: but what was I going to do next? [That] is when I freaked out, is when I was terrified.

And then my mind started racing, and a tourist police officer came up to help me. And he said to me: “We get people like you all the time – drug addicts like you all the time.” And as soon as he told me that, I was fine. So I constructed in my head a narrative of being a drug addict. I invented this woman, Christina, in my head, a very ugly red-headed woman with nickel-size freckles who I would do drugs with all the time in India. She and I would run around India doing drugs. Totally not true. Totally fabricated.

Q: That is the mind trying to feel out its own narrative, right?

MacLean: Exactly, yeah. The one thing the mind balks at is not having context. And so it will try using whatever materials it has to create that context and reassert the ego in the face of the chaos in the world.

Q: But did you truly have no sense of history? Like no childhood memories? 

MacLean: It’s difficult because there are different kinds of amnesia. It clearly didn’t affect my language sense. To be honest, there were spasms. And there would be times when I would remember stuff. And times when I didn’t; times when I would be totally confused again; times when I did, it was like this fugue state – just thrashing … I sort of let the confusion in the book stay there. That’s going to drive a lot of people crazy. But like, well good. It drove me crazy.

Q: You start to come back to yourself when you first see your parents. So what was it about that trigger as they visited you in the psych ward in India?

MacLean: Something clicked, and I saw them and I saw the way they looked at me. And it located me in a way; and it found me. And not everything was there. And at least I have the shape of what I was trying to fill. I still thought I was a drug addict. I kept apologizing to them for being a terrible, horrible drug addict that destroyed their lives which they thought was kind of funny.

Q: Then, they didn’t believe it?

MacLean: Right. Not at all. They were like, “David, you’re a dummy. Come on.” It’s good that I have parents with a good sense of humor because through this, it has not been easy.

Q: Do you still have Lariam in your brain? Is this a repeatable injury?

MacLean: I’m terrified of it all the time … It’s that feeling of at any moment, a molecule could fall out of place – and I’m a different person. That’s a terrifying thing to live with.

This excerpt was edited for length and context. To hear the entire conversation downloaded on iTunes,  at SoundCloud or stream on YouTube.