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The Mysteries of Memory

Submitted on Tuesday, June 08, 2021

For Professor Lynne Howarth, who retires at the end of this month, her last decade on the job has been marked by her research into memory and objects. As a first step, she set out to discover whether certain objects would cue the memories of people with Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (ADRD).

“Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t,” she said, discussing the early results of the Pathways to Memory project. “In the end it was the idea of being connected, the social feeling that you mattered and your stories mattered” that turned out to most benefit the study’s participants.

When Howarth embarked on her memory research, which was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), there was next to nothing in the information discipline about people with Alzheimer’s and dementia despite the fact that people with ADRD both needed and were generating information.

The best-case outcome she imagined was that the research would help open up new pathways to finding old memories in keeping with the concept of neuroplasticity. “I was a little naïve,” she says.

Lynne Howarth with her student Research Assistants Rossini Yue, Maeghan Jerry, and Emily Meikle (left to right)

Lynne Howarth with her student Research Assistants Rossini Yue, Maeghan Jerry, and Emily Meikle (left to right). Lynne says she will miss teaching in a field that has felt the impact of rapid technological and societal change as well as watching students have “aha!” moments.

Reflecting on her project in a recent paper, Howarth explained that, while she and her team “discovered that it was not possible to determine or measure, with any certainty, if or to what degree objects used in common reminiscence sessions assisted in memory recall,” they were able to determine how important it was to participants’ self-image and identity to be invited to share stories with others and to engage in meaningful social interaction free of judgment. “Simply to be asked and respected for one’s contribution provided validation and acknowledgement of each participant’s importance and place,” she wrote.

In a second study, Memory, Meaning-Making, and Collections, conducted with Museum Studies Professor Cara Krmpotich and Professor Heather Howard of Michigan State University, Howarth documented object handling and storytelling sessions with a group of seniors associated with the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. Participants engaged with a unique collection of community artefacts, including moccasins, bead work, tamarack geese, wood carvings, quill boxes and other objects.

The women, many of whom had experienced the trauma of being raised in a white culture not their own, set out to learn together, says Howarth. “They told us stories around the objects. Whether they could tell us about the objects didn’t matter.” Looking at a dog sledder carved out of wood, a woman remembered that her grandfather was a great carver and recalled an image of him around the fire telling stories. “We saw the power of storytelling in connecting participants with their own sometimes difficult memories, and renewing pride in their rich indigenous heritage,” says Howarth.

From there, Howarth moved on to another SSHRC-funded project entitled Show, Tell, Bridge: The Affordance of Objects in Negotiating Individual and Group Identity. At this point, she was especially interested in developing object-storytelling programs in settings where people may feel alienated or excluded and were marginalized by language, culture, physical or cognitive ability, country of origin, race, ethnicity, age, or otherwise.

Dr. Lisa Quirke (right) and Lynne Howarth (left) at the Show, Tell, Bridge poster session

Dr. Lisa Quirke (left) and Lynne Howarth (right) at the Show, Tell, Bridge poster session

“The objects give people room to talk,” said Howarth, comparing them to the traditional talking stick, whose holder may speak uninterrupted. “The objects are an information vehicle in a sense. We put a lot of our most personal information into an object. They hold our memories and represent our identity. Telling a story about a cherished memento is a short-cut to connecting with others.”

With no teaching assignments in her final year on the job, Howarth used the time to finish up her research and writing projects on memory and to embark on some new ones including co-editing a special journal issue on representing diversity and social justice in knowledge systems.

She says she will miss teaching in a field that has felt the impact of rapid technological and societal change as well as watching students have “aha!” moments. She is happy to see Universal Design for Learning, which accommodates different learning styles and abilities, become more accepted and widely used.

A former Dean of the Faculty from 1995 to 2003, Howarth sees a strong sense among students that “information can be used for the public good, whether that’s society or some individual who really needs it to make a difference. I feel really, really optimistic about it.”

As for approaching retirement in the era of Covid-19, Howarth says, “There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you aware how important information is and how much you depend on it to make the right decisions.”

Known among other things for her knowledge of the university and its processes as well as her skills chairing meetings about difficult topics, Howarth found herself called upon to moderate online as colleagues planned for the last academic year. She says her years of service, with both the university and professional and academic associations, have helped her get to know colleagues better and discover the different things people care deeply about.

“I think I have a natural inclination towards trying to find consensus,” she says. “And I think I just like puzzles and people.”