Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory Paperback – 4 Jul 2013
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Outstanding...draws on both science and art to marvellous effect (Observer)
A captivating journey into the mind...told with great style (Telegraph)
An immense pleasure (New Scientist)
Exhilarating...a compelling case (TLS)
A gifted writer (FT)
Both playful and profound, a wonderfully memorable read (Douwe Draaisma, author of Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older)
A beautifully written, absorbing read - a fascinating journey through the latest science of memory (Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor, University of California, Irvine)
In this enthralling tour of human memory, Charles Fernyhough - himself a hybrid of science and poetry - reveals the mysterious forces behind these stories that shape our lives. (Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works)
Fernyhough weaves literature and science to expose our rich, beautiful relationship with our past and future selves. (Dr. David Eagleman, Neuroscientist and author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain)
Combining the engaging style of a novelist with the rigour of a scientist, insightful and thought provoking...will linger in your memory and change the way you think about it. (Daniel L. Schacter, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers.)
A sophisticated blend of findings from science and ideas from literature...at times moving and very rewarding (Times Higher Education)
A captivating journey into the mind (Daily Telegraph 2013-06-29)
As absorbing as it is thought-provoking (Julian Fleming Sunday Business Post 2013-07-07)
Why do we remember certain things but forget others?See all Product description
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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
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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