Dorthe Berntsen

Recipient of the Carlsberg Foundation’s Research Prize 2021

What is your research field?

I carry out research on memory, specifically autobiographical memory, which is the part of the memory that enables us to deliberately recall experiences in our personal past and to imagine possible events in our personal future. Autobiographical memory is regarded as a separate neurocognitive (brain/mind) system that combines more basic systems (emotions, imagination, language, etc.) in the building of autobiographical memories and other event simulations, for example future imaginings or counterfactual thinking. 

My research centres on many different aspects of this complex system and has involved many different populations. I have studied autobiographical memory across cultures, in the brain, in healthy people and in people with mental disorders, and investigated how autobiographical memory develops over a lifetime and whether the characteristic is found in species other than humans.

What are the challenges of your research and what are your perspectives?

One challenge that applies to highly psychological research is making mental phenomena measurable. In this regard, we use various forms of controlled self-reporting, tests of the memory’s accuracy or level of detail, response time, brain scanning or knowledge of brain damage relative to behavioural measures. A major challenge in this is to avoid reducing the complexity of the psychological phenomenon that is being investigated. 

Understanding autobiographical memory is one of the keys to understanding many important aspects of mental life. Autobiographical memory is pivotal to what defines an individual as a person with duties, roles and commitments in a given society. This makes it possible for us to learn from the past and plan our personal future. This form of memory is therefore vital for a sense of identity, continuity and direction in life. Most psychiatric conditions, such as depression, PTSD, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia, are associated with serious disturbances in the autobiographical memory.

How did you become interested in this research field?

When I began studying psychology many years ago, it was with the expectation that I would become a psychotherapist. It was a big surprise and eye-opener for me that psychology was also basic research. In the early years of my studies, I became more and more fascinated by psychology as science. The idea of becoming a therapist slipped into the background and was replaced by ambitions of being a researcher. 

I was particularly preoccupied with the question of whether language provides the framework for cognition such that we can only apprehend something for which we have words and language. In this context, I was very interested in how art and literature create new linguistic expressions in the form of imagery. I suspected that the source of this had to be in people’s personal lives. And thus the link to autobiographical memory was created. My PhD project was on spontaneous autobiographical memories – in other words, memories that emerge of their own accord, typically triggered by an associative connection in one’s surroundings.

What are the most important realisations or discoveries you have made so far?

A large part of my research has concerned involuntary (spontaneous) autobiographical memory. When I began my research, no one had really investigated that form of memory in everyday life, but it turned out to be extremely rich and has been central to my research ever since. Involuntary memories were regarded as rare and as an expression of emotional disturbances because the assumption was that healthy people typically give rise to memories via an intentional and controlled process. 

My research has corrected that view by showing that involuntary memories constitute an absolutely basic form of memory that is also found in other species and presumably arose earlier in evolution than the forms of memory we control ourselves. We have shown that they generally concern positive experiences (and are thus not essentially negative, as previously assumed), that they are developed earlier in childhood than intentional memories, and that they are less affected by ageing and dementia conditions. We have also detected these forms of memories in anthropoid apes.

What does it mean to you to receive the Carlsberg Foundation’s Research Prize?

Being awarded the Carlsberg Foundation’s Research Prize is a major recognition. Not just for myself, but also for the many people with whom I have collaborated – and for the quality of those collaborations. I am also delighted that with this prize I can give psychology – as a basic research discipline – a more prominent place on the Danish map.

Background

I grew up in a small village in East Jutland as the daughter of the local decorator. After finishing school, I found it hard working out what I wanted to do. I made a lot of diversions. It took me eight years to decide that psychology was my subject. During that period, I studied Nordic literature for a year, published a novel and did various jobs. Those eight years before I began studying psychology taught me a lot of important things. 

Among other things, I learnt that many other jobs are a lot tougher than being a university professor, even if we do have a long working week. But my diversions did not stop completely. I published four more novels while I was a PhD student and assistant professor. With the many projects that now need to be developed and overseen, I no longer have time for so many diversions. But I really love walking, cycling and running, and I do have time for those things.


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