Being there

Reminiscing by Chad Dutson

When we return to a place we are often drawn back to deep-seated memories.  Reconnecting with these memories can not only improve our state of mind:  it can also have a profound effect on our physical well-being.  The purpose of this podcast series (based in Prestwich, Manchester) is to enable people to reconnect with their past.

Groundbreaking research undertaken by Ellen Langer at Harvard University in 1978 demonstrated the clear link between our mental well-being and our physical state.  Her experiment involved a group of older men (between 70 and 80) who were invited to attend a retreat which involved a ‘week of reminiscence’.  The profound results of this study are only now beginning to reveal themselves.  The psychologist wanted to know if she could put the mind back 20 years would the body show any changes. But the main study group would be doing more than simply reminiscing.  They would be surrounded by props and furniture that would make them feel as if they were really back in 1959.  As a group, they would be encouraged to talk about daily news from 1959 just as if it was happening there and then.

This immersion in an era 20 years past made the subjects behave as if they were living in 1959 again.  Their physical well-being improved dramatically, with the researcher noting that many of the men were making their own meals, carrying their suitcases and walking briskly.  This was a transformation from the dependent and ageing individuals that first went on the retreat.  Their gait, dexterity, arthritis, speed of movement, cognitive abilities and their memory was all measurably improved.

This collection of interviews (podcasts) is designed with health in mind.  It is based on the evidence based reasoning that by revisiting our past we can recover some of our physical well-being.  Not only is it directed at the older generation.  The conviction is that people experiencing deteriorating health conditions may in fact benefit from revisiting a time when their health was good.  Whilst reminiscing through the physical world might not directly improve their condition, it will help them to overcome the traumas of failing health.

All of the interviews are undertaken in situ. In fact, they are ‘walk and talk’ interviews that involve interaction with the physical environment.  Instead of the mantra ‘put the past behind you’ the participants are encouraged to ‘put the past in front of you’.  Sometimes you can hear the interviewee being slightly out of breath! Mild physical exertion is an important part of the reminiscing process.

One of the individuals that have been instrumental in setting up the Prestwich Podcast Series was previously a Professor in Built Environment at the University of Salford.  Place and place attachment were a key part of his research.  Having been forced to retire as a result of a declining health condition (Multiple Sclerosis) he has had first-hand experience of the benefits of ‘doing and reminiscing’.  He can be found regularly losing himself in a long lost ‘seated exercise’ video from the 1980s.  The combination of nostalgic music and exercise attire from that era transports him to that time.  Whilst others might only notice his disability, he is more than aware of his physical improvements.  Frustrating though this may seem, he has come to realise that traditional medicine has its limits and needs to be accompanied by changes within.

Sharing memories in a changing world shouldn’t be seen as defeatist or indulgent.  Quite the contrary.  It gives us the capacity to re-engage with the world.


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