Dorthe Berntsen

Motivation for awarding The Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize 2021

What is memory? Are memories neatly ordered and curated, as if they are the museum pieces of the mind, or rather an assemblage of disordered pieces we carry in a mental suitcase? How do we, individually and socially, organise our memories into a narration of our course in life? Answering these questions brings us closer to understanding identity.

Professor Dorthe Berntsen has broken new ground by investigating why, apparently suddenly, memories emerge, and how to explain such unintentional associative memory processes by demonstrating that they are common, foundational to remembering our past, and predominantly positive. These memories are present in our early childhood, probably even before we can consciously retrieve them.

Our autobiographical memory is our capacity to consciously remember events from our past. But what happens to our autobiographical memory when we are under extreme pressure and stress? Professor Berntsen and her colleagues’ work with PTSD and traumatic memory has revealed how trauma memories serve as a reference point for organising information related to the self, hence their importance for our identity and mental health.

These are highly relevant questions and issues for all human beings.

Together with colleagues in the Danish military, Professor Berntsen conducted the first systematic study of PTSD and trauma memories among Danish soldiers deployed in combat zones in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2009. Over a period from before their deployment, through their time in Afghanistan, to after their return home, the soldiers were examined five times by Professor Berntsen’s team of psychologists.

Professor Berntsen has approached the topic of autobiographical memory from an unusually broad and integrated perspective, combining neuropsychology, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, ageing, animal behaviour, and neuroscience. As such, she is a role model for implementing a truly interdisciplinary research endeavour.

Professor Berntsen has headed the Center on Autobiographical Memory Research since it opened in 2010, taking the study of autobiographical memory to new levels. This Centre of Excellence, which goes by the appealing name of CON AMORE, has brought together researchers to explore autobiographical memory in animals and humans, from childhood to old age, across different cultures, in healthy humans and in those suffering from clinical disorders. Their research has demonstrated that with age comes the clearest retention of memories of our youth.

As an innovative example of the transfer of knowledge, Professor Berntsen collaborated with the open-air museum Den Gamle By in Aarhus to examine the memory effects of a historical flat, furnished and decorated in the style of the 1950s, which elderly Danes suffering from dementia can visit. Here they can experience the typical interior decor of their youth, listen to music from the era, taste typical foods, and perhaps sing along to a popular song on the radio. This is by no means a cure; however, recalling happy times and feeling a sense of meaning can be beneficial.

Professor Berntsen has truly transformed psychological research, and her pioneering work will be remembered for many years both in Denmark and internationally.

She is therefore awarded the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize 2021.

Read a profile of Dorthe Berntsen and watch a film about her reasearch


The Prize Committee

Chair:

The President of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters

Marie Louise Nosch, Professor, SAXO Institute - Archaeology, Ethnology, Greek & Latin, History, University of Copenhagen

Members:

International members within humanities and social sciences:

• Joanna Story, Professor of Early Medieval History, University of Leicester

• Heinrich Detering, Professor of Modern German Literature and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Göttingen

International members within the natural sciences:

• Carol Robinson, Professor of Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford

• Susanne Renner, Professor of Biology, Department of Biology, Washington University in St. Louis

Previous winners of the Carlsberg Foundation Research prize:

• Mette Birkedal Bruun (2017), Professor, Section of Church History, University of Copenhagen

• Andreas Roepstorff (2015), Professor, Director of the Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University

• Poul Nissen (2018), Professor, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University

• Karl Anker Jørgensen (2017), Professor, Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University