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Pieces of Light: The new science of memory [Paperback]

Charles Fernyhough
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 July 2013

Shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize 2013 and the 2013 Best Book of Ideas Prize.

Memory is an essential part of who we are. But what are memories, and how are they created? A new consensus is emerging among cognitive scientists: rather than possessing a particular memory from our past, like a snapshot, we construct it anew each time we are called upon to remember. Remembering is an act of narrative as much as it is the product of a neurological process. Pieces of Light illuminates this theory through a collection of human stories, each illustrating a facet of memory's complex synergy of cognitive and neurological functions.

Drawing on case studies, personal experience and the latest research, Charles Fernyhough delves into the memories of the very young and very old, and explores how amnesia and trauma can affect how we view the past. Exquisitely written and meticulously researched, Pieces of Light blends science and literature, the ordinary and the extraordinary, to illuminate the way we remember and forget.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (4 July 2013)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 1846684498
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846684494
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 94,388 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Charles Fernyhough is a writer and psychologist. His intellectual biography of his three-year-old daughter, The Baby in the Mirror (Granta, 2008) has been translated into seven languages. He is the author of two novels, The Auctioneer (Fourth Estate, 1999) and A Box of Birds (Unbound, 2012). He teaches psychology at Durham University, and has written for numerous publications including the Guardian, Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph. Website: www.charlesfernyhough.com Twitter: @cfernyhough, #PiecesOfLight

Product Description


'Tells stories to explore the deepest nature of memory, and does it beautifully … In his hybrid of autobiography, journalism and pop psychology, Fernyhough lets the stories speak for themselves to highlight memory's personal, subjective and fragile qualities. Fernyhough takes us on a captivating journey into the mind. And he does so with great style' Telegraph

'Fernyhough deftly guides us through memory's many facets … Often using himself as a test case, he adds context with research and snippets from a raft of great writers. A thoughtful study of how we make sense of ourselves' Nature

'While the fragility of memory is well-documented, Fernyhough doesn't leave its quirky strengths unexamined' Psychology Today

'In this lyrical exploration of our powers of recall, psychologist and novelist Charles Fernyhough argues that our memories are worth cherishing - even though some of what we think we remember is, in fact, fiction' New Scientist Books of the Year

'Charles Fernyhough has had the arresting idea of writing a book about memory that is also a memoir. As a psychologist clearly well up on the latest research, he shows how memory itself relies on language and storytelling. Investigating his own memories with a writerly eye, he brings to vibrant life scenes from a childhood refreshingly free of misery' --Sunday Times Books of the Year

'Outstanding ... Fernyhough's skills as a writer are evident both in the beautiful prose and in the way he uses literature to illustrate his argument ... He draws on both science and art to marvellous effect' Observer

'Exhilarating ... Most strikingly Fernyhough breaks free from the ''silo mentality'' separating science and art ... makes a compelling case that memory ''allows us to see time'', something of what happened then and of who we are today, albeit through what he delightfully calls its ''slippery charms''' TLS

'An immense pleasure ... Restrained and lyrical ... shines new light on the reader's own life' New Scientist

'His examination [is] welcoming and accessible to lay readers. His analysis is wide-ranging ... He also covers a wide swath of literary and historical ground ... A refreshingly social take on an intensely personal experience' Publishers Weekly

'A multidisciplinary approach to explaining memory ... Will be intriguing for readers interested in the borderlands where memoir, fiction and science overlap' Kirkus Reviews

'A sophisticated blend of findings from science, ideas from literature and examples from personal narratives ... refreshing, well judged and at times moving. This is an unusual book but a very rewarding one' Times Higher Education

'A fascinating snapshot of where our thinking stands on the subject' Independent

'Enlightening ... A crisp and knowledgeable guide to all the data that generally stays buried deep in specialist journals. Most lay people still think of memory in terms of a vast personal DVD library... In fact, as Fernyhough persuasively shows, memory is far more mutable than that' Guardian

'Absorbing... In offering us a meditation on memory, Fernyhough has something important to say about one of the forces that is central to our lives' The Lady

'Fernyhough is a gifted writer who can turn any experience into lively prose ... The stories ... will entertain anyone who reads them' Financial Times

'Fernyhough argues that we don't simply possess a memory; we reconstruct it anew every time we need to remember ... Through his own experiences and those of others, from the very young to the very old, he explores the mystery of remembering and the ambiguity of forgetting' Saga Magazine

'An enthralling investigation of that 'thing' we call memory ... manages to write about complex things in a clear and understandable way' Ian McMillan, The Verb

'Thoughtful ... a deft guide to discoveries that have led memory researchers to stress the centrality of storytelling' Booklist

'As absorbing as it is thought-provoking' --Sunday Business Post

Book Description

Why do we remember certain things but forget others?

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Illuminating! 22 Feb 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I was searching for something up-to-date that would explain the science and art of memory; I wanted a book that was comprehensible to an outsider to neuroscience but not one that oversimplified. Fernyhough's book is perfect, so useful that I bought a second copy for my iPad.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great and encompassing description of memory 14 Nov 2012
This is a great book! It introduces each memory first through a personal or case experience, which is followed by the most recent scientific data in the field. You can grasp the laborious research which has gone into this book, everything is incredibly well explained. With me coming from a memory and neuroscience field myself, it is incredibly easy to read. But also for people with an interest, yet not a detailed knowledge, this book is a must read.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Memory and Imagination 1 Nov 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This has been my bedside reading for the past couple of weeks. I've always been interested in the way Memory and Imagination work together to create. How the imagination takes all the snippets of things we've stored in our brains over the years and weaves them into something completely new. What I didn't realise, until I read Charles Fernyhough's book, Pieces of Light: The new science of memory was just how dependent the memory was on imagination in order to enable us to remember.

It seems that our memories of past events aren't stored in one place, like a video film, just waiting to be re-run, but in bits and pieces of information in different parts of the brain; smell in one place, sound in another, visual and emotional cues in others. When we try to remember something that happened to us in the past, our imagination comes into play to reconstruct the memory as a narrative, which explains why people remember things so differently, and memories alter through time - a minor detail when the event took place might acquire real significance later.

In amnesia victims, where the part of the brain that controls imagination is damaged, memory is severely disrupted and `forward thinking' - the ability to speculate about the future - is impossible.

The way we encode our lives in the memory is also interesting - apparently we are all natural story-tellers. `Narrative,' Fernyhough states, `is a key organisational force in autobiographical memory.' We remember events as stories, pieces of narrative. The author comments in the book, `I set out to write about some science, and I ended up by telling a lot of stories'. It's the story our brain remembers while the event itself fades.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Popular science at its best 23 Feb 2014
This is not your average science book. Mixing very personal biography with the the very latest neuroscience Charles Fernyhough takes us on a journey of our understanding of memory. Reading it felt like a cross between "A Wavewatchers Companion" and "My Beautiful Genome" also both great books and highly recommended.

As Rolf Dobelli neatly explains in "The Art of Thinking Clearly" we have an inherent bias towards remembering stories rather than facts and Charles Fernyhough uses this to create a book about memory that is indeed memorable for all the right reasons.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A complex subject made accessible to amateurs 1 Sep 2013
By stibule
This book provided a scientific overview of memory, told by reference to personal experiences and observations. Its hugely readable style of writing brought to life a hugely complex subject area and made it accessible to psychology novices like me without being condescending. Recommended.
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