Language can unlock memories but it can also tamper with the truth, as Stephen Fry discovers with guest Sir Simon Russell Beale.
It’s a story of the past - but is it true or false? With the help of Professor Steven Pinker, the actor Sir Simon Russell Beale and Swedish-Mongolian-triple-world-record-holding memory athlete Yanjaa Wintersoul, Stephen Fry discovers how strange, fluid and sometimes false memory can be - like several competing voices merging and babbling over one another.
When it comes to articulating memory and turning it into words, it’s a slippery process - as Stephen discovers when he tries to recall details from the day he was arrested and taken to prison as a teenager, more than 40 years ago.
Stephen learns how suggestive language and leading questions from others can produce false memories which nonetheless feel real. He turns to the work of Psychologist Dr Julia Shaw whose research into false memory led her to conduct an experiment in which she successfully planted false memories of breaking the law as a teenager into the minds of 60 people.
Memory athlete Yanjaa Wintersoul explains how she committed the entire IKEA catalogue to memory, using ancient Greek mnemonic techniques. And Simon Russell Beale describes his methods for memorising many of the great Shakespearean roles he’s played, including King Lear and Hamlet.
When it comes to language that scans and rhymes, our memories are much more likely to work reliably. Professor Usha Goswami, a neuroscientist explains why our exposure to nursery rhymes and rhyming songs as children is crucial to our language development and to a healthy and accurate memory in later years.
Producer: Sarah Cuddon
A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4