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4.3 out of 5 stars
Pieces of Light: The new science of memory
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 14 November 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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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 1 November 2012
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. Our lives become a series of narratives. We seem to have a need to `create a coherent narrative about where one has come from'. But apparently it sacrifices accuracy in order to produce `meaning' - the emotional value of the event is more important than the small detail.

Charles Fernyhough also looks at how, by giving fictional characters rich memory banks, we can make them more authentic for the reader. He uses Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as an example of this, and discusses the work of W.G. Sebald and how he used memory to give a sense of reality - the texture of memoir - to his novels. Reading them, you are never sure whether this is reminiscence or fiction. There is `a kind of active remembering in which the world and self-hood are continually constructed and reconstructed - from present-day events and from not-quite-intelligible fragments of the past'.

There are some lovely interviews with Charles Fernyhough's mother Martha, attempting to recall her life in conversations with the author, reconstructing it and discovering new perspectives as she gazes back at it across eight decades.

I liked the quote from a critic, discussing Proust (you can't really talk about memory without mentioning him): "Like our eyes, our memories must see double; these two images then converge in our minds into a single heightened reality". Fernyhough goes on to elaborate: `Our two eyes, stereoscopically aligned, allow us to see space; memory allows us to `see' time. Memories are about what happened then, but they are also about who we are now'.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 23 February 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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 February 2015
Over the years, I've seen the human memory at its best and worst. I watched my Nan suffer with Alzheimer's to the point she couldn't remember who anyone was, but also had a colleague who won a silver medal at the Memory Olympics for his ability to remember long strings of items. I also studied memory as part of a psychology degree but, perhaps ironically, I can no longer remember much of what I learned.

In ''Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory'', Charles Fernyhough proposes a different way of looking at memory. He suggests that current research shows that memories are not all locked away in a vault ready for retrieval, but that every time we have a memory, we are rebuilding it on each occasion. He shows how this can mean people of different ages will remember things from different parts of their lives, depending on how their brains are wired and what can cause forgetting.

Although he doesn't specifically mention Alzheimer's, he talks about what can act as a block to memory in various ways and how traumatic events can take their own hold over our memories but can, in turn, be handled. There is a brief mention of how seemingly long forgotten events can be sparked into life with the right cues and how memories can be falsely generated or influenced by external factors, particularly in the very young.

Fernyhough writes in a very narrative style, which is unusual in what is essentially a textbook, but which gives the book a better flow than it may otherwise have had. He has written a novel and that experience stands him in good stead here. Even when the material does become a little more complicated, as he reports of research carried out on specific areas of the brain, his style means the book is always readable.

Even with my own studies in memory being so long ago, I was frequently fascinated by the research details here. Particular areas that concerned me were touched upon, with the ability to remember large amounts of data mentioned, if not fully explained or backed with research. More interesting to me personally was when he talked about how memory trick us into thinking life goes faster as you age, as that is something I have long felt is happening to me.

This factor helped me engage with the book more than I otherwise might have done, but all the way through I found myself thinking back and relating to areas Fernyhough discussed to my own life. As he talked about memory formation in childhood, I was able to find examples and there was a feeling of familiarity in other areas. Although I had a period of studying psychology, the information is so well presented that a reader will need no advanced knowledge of the subject to relate to the book in the same way I did. Some of the mentions of specific brain areas may get a little confusing, but there is a helpful diagram to show which parts he is talking about, which I referred to often.

If there is a downside to the book, it is that the narrative style works against the ability to find specific information quickly. It helps with readability and would increase the readership, but slightly hinders the use of the book as a research tool or as a traditional textbook. In addition, whilst the style makes it a decent read, it only explores memory and doesn't give any information on how to improve it, which the shelves of many bookstores suggest many people may be looking for.

However, as a starting point for those looking to find a little more about memory generally, or as a textbook for those new to studying psychology, this is a valuable resource. It is very easy to read and will encourage those who wish to do so to dig a little deeper. It has certainly awakened my interest in memory more than I recall the much drier textbooks of my psychology course doing and it's considerably cheaper than many of the books that failed to spark my interest back then, too.

This review may also appear, in whole or in part, under my name at any or all of www.ciao.co.uk, www.thebookbag.co.uk, www.goodreads.com, www.amazon.co.uk and www.dooyoo.co.uk
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 1 September 2013
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 11 May 2014
I read The Baby in the Mirror a few years ago and found it fascinating. Before buying Pieces of Light (which I think is a pun on Pieces of Eight, for buried treasure) I'd read Mlodinow's book Subliminal, about current thinking on the way the unconscious mind takes care of most of what we do, and I was afraid this book would be covering the same ground. However, although it refers (sparingly) to recent research and new discoveries about which parts of the brain process what, it wasn't at all like Mlodinow's book, which is jokey and matter-of-fact (and incidentally, also excellent). Fernyhough's book is very personal, deep and moving, and reads much more like a novel than a popular science book.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 18 November 2012
This is an interesting book. It explains in a popular way how memory is seen by experts in the field. It has been known for a long time that memory does not work like a video or dvd recorder though it seems that there are still people around who hold to that outmoded and discredited view. Charles Fernyhough shows how memory is reconstructive and uses his own experience and scientific findings to produce a book that is very readable.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 22 June 2014
This looks like a popular science book but reads like literary non-fiction. It minimizes the science, weaves in stories based on personal experience, draws on fiction, and is slow to get to the point. As an example of the minimisation of the science, take Chapter 2, which is about getting lost. It consists of 22 pages, of which only four pages are about the science – the working of the hippocampus. Having expected something that would get to the point quickly and explain experiments and theories in sufficient detail to be able to judge their merits, I was disappointed. But I’m giving it 3 stars because it’s well written, with paragraphing and all. I mention paragraphing because Charles Fernyhough’s frequent digressions while recounting a journey are vaguely reminiscent of the style of W.G. Sebald in “The Rings of Saturn”, only with paragraphing. He actually mentions another work by Sebald a couple of times, so he has probably been slightly influenced by that style.

Some topics are notable by their absence. Fernyhough gives evidence that memory depends on language, on having the vocabulary for the things you want to recall, yet also says that the dominant theory is the scene construction model, which posits that memory relies on the skill of our species at spatial processing. Why no adequate explanation of how the verbal and spatial findings fit together? Also, the phrase “our species” implies that the claims about spatial processing apply equally to the females and males of our species, yet there are sex differences in spatial abilities. Does this result in sex differences in memory? Why no mention of this?

And why does the author think that fictional accounts of memory are relevant, given that he himself points out that some intuitive beliefs about the workings of memory are wrong? Surely these incorrect beliefs are as likely to be held by novelists as anyone else?

Overall, “Pieces of Light” is like a memory foam mattress; it feels warm and comfortable when you first get into bed with it, but if you sleep on it, you wake up hot and uncomfortable.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 1 February 2014
Some interesting new ways of seeing memory. Goes a little too much into the authors autobiography for examples but otherwise a good read for research on the subject or general interest of the subject.
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