This fascinating investigation by a psychiatrist examines the intricacies of the human brain, revealing how and why our minds can play tricks on us

Veronica O’Keane is a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin. Early in her career, while working on a perinatal psychiatric ward at the Bethlem Royal hospital, now part of the Maudsley in south London, she encountered Edith, who was suffering from postpartum psychosis. Edith believed her baby had been replaced by an impostor. She was convinced her husband, too, had been swapped for a substitute. When interviewed, she was locked in, fearful and reluctant to talk to what she saw as an equally suspect medical team. On her way into the hospital, she had spotted, in the local graveyard, a small, tilted gravestone and was certain her baby had been killed and buried there.

Edith’s story was the beginning of O’Keane’s investigation into memory. What fascinated her was that, even after being treated with anti-psychotic medication and being reunited with reason and her living baby, Edith was, on seeing the gravestone again, filled with horror. O’Keane wished to be reassured that Edith understood her psychotic ideas were illusory. “What she said next set me on a long-term pathway of inquiry about the nature of the matter of memory. She looked straight at me and said: ‘Yes… but the memories are real.”’ It was as if memory had a persisting autonomous authority. Memory had a mind of its own.

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