How is it possible to have vivid memories of something that never happened?
How can siblings remember the same event from their childhoods so differently?
Do the selections and distortions of memory reveal a truth about the self?
Why are certain memories tied to specific places?
Does your memory really get worse as you get older?
A new consensus is emerging among cognitive scientists: Rather than possessing fixed, unchanging memories, we create recollections anew each time we are called upon to remember. As the psychologist Charles Fernyhough explains, remembering is an act of narrative imagination as much as it is the product of a neurological process. In Pieces of Light, he eloquently illuminates this compelling scientific breakthrough via a series of personal stories - a visit to his college campus to see if his memories hold up, an interview with his 93-year-old grandmother, conversations with those whose memories are affected by brain damage and trauma - each illustrating memory's complex synergy of cognitive and neurological functions.
Fernyhough guides readers through the fascinating new science of autobiographical memory, covering topics including imagination and the power of sense associations to cue remembering. Exquisitely written and meticulously researched, Pieces of Light brings together science and literature, the ordinary and the extraordinary, to help us better understand the ways we remember - and the ways we forget.
©2012 Charles Fernyhough (P)2013 HarperCollins Publishers
Love books! Classics and lighter fiction, mysteries (not too violent please :-). And selective non-fiction--whatever takes my fancy.
This book is so thoroughly filled with stories, scientific information and explanations for what this all means to us, that it feels like a daunting task to write an adequate review.
First, may I say it is fascinating! What a great compilation of updated neurological knowledge about memory, the critical role it plays in our everyday lives, but put into easily grasped explanations. No easy task in itself.
Charles Fernyhough draws on his own background in cognitive science, the poetic viewpoint of authors, and individual accounts of memory to discuss his central thesis which is that memory is not an unquestionable imprinted movie of something in the past, but an active mental construction created at the moment is is being recalled, influenced by many factors, including our emotional sense of them, the conditions of the moment, and things that we have specifically attended to.
He explores ways that memory is dependent on factors such as smell, emotion, selective focus that serve our purposes, the meaning we create around them (among other qualities). At one place he refers to them as "imaginative reconstruction." He explores why we fail to remember (amnesia), recall too much (PTSD) or dissociate from particular memories. But largely he speaks to the role of memory in our everyday life. His assumption is, that since memories are constructions, they can be reassembled in different ways, as well.
Why does it matter to us how memories function? Well, the common view is that memories are fixed and immutable. Based on that, we use witnesses in Courts that can make a difference in the future of an accused person. On a less important level perhaps, though, consider how often we operate in ordinary relationships insisting that we remember things perfectly as they were. Ever try that at a family reunion, or have parents or spouses ever gotten into fights because of people recalling things differently? Then there is the traumatic role of memory. A soldier returns from the war with raw memories that just cannot settle, leading to an ever more frequent Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
Memory is behind most of learning and future thinking. It is part of our imagination, and a central part of all our thoughts.
I feel I simply cannot do justice to this powerful (and extremely well-read) work with this short review. However, I do feel confident to say that we should all pay attention to this information because it will change the way you think about memory forever. Fernyhough has done an extremely impressive job of assembling a great deal of recent research to help us understand the role and function of memory in our lives. This has great implications for many ways that we have made assumptions about what memories "are" and how they actually function in our lives. It is a great contribution to the field.
I admit, I read this book with an ulterior motive. I have kind of a "self help" interest in memory and its quirks. I have this idea that if I can polish up my past (and I don't see why not, I'm the keeper of it, after all) then it should - in countless subconscious ways - improve my present.
This book gives my ulterior motive hope because, as the book explains, memory is really a confabulation of past experiences, stories and present hopes and attitudes - not an unchanging video of the mind. Charles Fernyhough combines the latest and greatest of memory research with personal stories (like how he's attempting to give his children vivid memories of his father, who died before they were born.) He covers common memory glitches - like how siblings remember the same event, but happening to different people.
(I have this situation with my sister. I cut my finger on a peanut butter can - yes, peanut butter used to come in cans - and had to get stitches. She remembers the incident as well, but thinks it was her finger that was cut. The weird thing is that we both have a scar on that finger.)
I don't know if this book will grip those without personal gain in the back of their minds, but I enjoyed it. Recommend.
I have marginally more than a passing interest in the realm of cognitive psychology, in language sometimes more than memory, but haven't studied it beyond a course or two in undergrad. This has been accessible, and I'd say those less familiar than I could still take away as much as they'd like from the work, but I find my limited background has been useful, if only to provide context or a little familiarity with the terms or experimental procedures.
The discussions are interesting, some unexpected sources like fiction authors and popular artists have appeared, some amusing first- and third- person anecdotes. But the narrator, aside from adopting slight changes if accent for quotes, is just reading aloud much of the time, making it seem/sound drier than I think the topic deserves. He isn't bad at doing so, but that combined with his voice quality (British and soothing), I'm afraid I've been put to sleep more and a few times just in this first half of the book, and had to back up to re-listen to entire sections.
Had a bit of the same problem with the narrator putting me to sleep in the second half... I wasn't as intrigued by as much of the content of part two, lots on amnesia, trauma, and a huge "stories from my grandmother" section. I did like the short chapter on "mind palaces". (And it was wonderfully apropos, have just been watching season 3 of Sherlock.)
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