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Pieces of Light:
The New Science of Memory
by Charles Fernyhough
On the morning after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986, the psychologist Ulric Neisser distributed a short questionnaire to his class at Emory University in Atlanta, asking students to describe where they were, what they were doing and who they were with when they first heard of the disaster. He collected the completed questionnaires and kept them for three years. Then he contacted 44 of the participants and got them to do a questionnaire just like the first. The aim was to test the accuracy of so-called 'flashbulb' memories of historic moments. The results were startling. A quarter of the students misremembered every detail, yet some were so sure their memories were correct that they insisted their previous report, written the day after the disaster, must have been wrong.
As an example of popular-science writing Neisser's account is pretty near perfect, being at once a snatch of real life and an actual experiment. Charles Fernyhough's book takes the same subject as Neisser - the fallibility of memory - and attempts a similar mix, alternating between stretches of autobiography and rundowns of recent scientific research. He is a novelist as well as an academic psychologist, so should be at home in both modes, but somehow the combination does not work well. The real-life bits - his boyhood walks with his father along mudflats in Essex, his search for the hotel in Sydney where he stayed as a back-packing student - are less gripping for us than they evidently are for him, and the scientific sections are often so involved as to flummox most readers.
This is not really Fernyhough's fault. The truth is that nobody understands how memory works, so attempts to explain it are likely to wrap themselves in obscurity. I kept being reminded of the neurobiologist Steven Rose (not mentioned in this book) who, after a lifetime spent researching memory, said, "I still don't feel we have done more than deepen some of its mysteries." Fernyhough, and the scientists whose work he tells us about, spend a lot of their time identifying the parts of the brain where (on the evidence of MRI scans) memory 'happens'. But in itself this is of little interest. It's like listening to someone talk about football who knows nothing except the location of the grounds on which various teams play. Fernyhough's obsession with brain regions becomes especially irksome in the section where he interviews his grandmother. Brought up in the East End, the old lady evidently has some fascinating memories to impart - of the Blitz, of her father's bagel stall in Brick Lane. But Fernyhough cuts her short and ponders instead whether amygdala activation may be affecting protein synthesis in her hippocampus. At her funeral he wishes he'd asked her more about her childhood. So do we.
His main point is that memories are not stable possessions stored in some internal library. What they are remains a mystery, but current thinking is that they are changeable imaginative constructs that, in order to meet the needs of the present moment, rearrange and adapt traces of past happenings that have lodged in our brains. Or Âsomething like that. Whether this definition is true or not, it is certain that memories are often false, as experiments such as Neisser's suggest, and this applies even in cases where we might expect accuracy. The famous 'Proustian' effect, when a taste or a smell brings back floods of memories, would, you'd think, be dependable. Apparently, Andy Warhol changed his perfume every three months in the belief that when he sniffed a discarded perfume the period when he had worn it would leap into his memory. But experiment shows that Proustian memories are as likely to be false as any others. The same goes for the vivid flashbacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Victims tend to construct flashbacks that record what they fear might have happened rather than what did.
For most people memories are deeply important. They make us who we are. So we are alarmed when we are told they are just a mass of fictions. Fernyhough argues that we should, rather, rejoice in our own creativity. The fact that our memories are false shows that we are natural born story tellers. Memory errors are really 'marks of success'. They may, he believes, have allowed us to survive as a species, because the imaginative input that falsifies memories also allows us to foretell future events. This seems questionable. For Neolithic man, an accurate recollection of the habits and diet of the sabre-toothed tiger could clearly be useful in planning his future. But to imagine that sabre-tooths were playful and kittenish could, though more creative, prove fatal. We all carry, and need to carry, a huge amount of accurate information in our heads, from phone numbers to poems, and any theory of memory has to explain how the brain knows that the imagination mustn't be allowed to tamper with these while allowing it free play elsewhere.
Believing that false memories are just as good as or better than accurate ones has led
Fernyhough to experiment on his own children. He regrets that his father, who was dear to him, died before they were born, so they have no treasured memories of him, as he has. To remedy this he has implanted false memories of their grandfather in their brains. It is relatively easy to do this with children, he explains. Exposed to other people's recollections, photos or home movies, they will come to imagine they were present, so that if you ask them whether they remember a visit to the zoo with grandpa they will say and believe they do. Although this may seem like deception, their memories are, Fernyhough maintains, no more or less real than his own memories of his father, which his imagination has been altering over the years.
This is one of the best moments in his book, precisely because his reasoning seems so dubious. We are engaged, and forced to make a judgment, instead of being stuffed with information. Another of the book's strengths is its inclusion of poets and novelists and their depictions of memory - Vladimir Nabokov, WG Sebald, AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel and many others. They stand out from the scientists because scientists believe they can make sense of memory and writers know they cannot. Repeatedly it is memory's randomness they wonder at - how it will cling to some meaningless detail and let treasures vanish. Fernyhough captures it in a quotation from Austin O'Malley, the (now, ironically, forgotten) American writer: memory is "a crazy woman that hoards coloured rags and throws away food".
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"REMEMBERING is a serious business," Charles Fernyhough warns. "For a journey into the past, you have to pick your moment."
It is this respect for his subject that makes Pieces of Light such an immense pleasure, as Fernyhough casts the emerging science of memory through the lens of his own recollections. The humiliating experience of potty training, for instance, helps him to illustrate the fragmentary, disordered nature of childhood memories before language indexes our past. Touching conversations with his late grandmother, meanwhile, colour his discussions of the ageing brain and the surprising longevity of narrative memories.
In the hands of a lesser writer, such reliance on personal experience could rapidly descend into self-indulgence and clich«±, but Fernyhough - a psychologist and published novelist - remains restrained and lyrical throughout.
Like all good writing, the result shines new light on the reader's own life. As Fernyhough examines the way the brain continually rewrites our past, it is almost impossible not to question the accuracy of your recollections. Even the events that we recall with the most vivid sensory detail are not to be trusted. More than three decades of research has confirmed Salvador Dal«¿'s assertion that "the difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels - it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant". Disconcertingly, some of the chapters of our life story are simply borrowed from the experiences of our closest family.
On one level, such findings are deeply troubling - they have cast much doubt on the use of eyewitness testimonies in the courtroom, particularly when it concerns apparent cases of repressed abuse "recovered" through therapy.
But provided we tread carefully, Fernyhough sees no reason why this knowledge should deter us from journeying into our past. Our recollections "might be fictions", he says, "but they are our fictions, and we should treasure them".
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