Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory

Alan Collins lauds a text that strikes a balance between science, literature and reminiscence

August 2, 2012

When I asked my teenage daughter about her first memory, she answered (a little uncertainly) that one of her earliest recollections was wearing Postman Pat pyjamas on Christmas morning while playing with her new toy kitchen (never fear, the toy stereotyping did not determine matters: now 19, she has barely touched a cooking utensil since). She paused and went on to say that she was not confident that she really remembered the event; she thought that maybe the memory had been suggested by a photograph we have of her playing in those pyjamas with that kitchen.

My daughter's uncertainty captures a major theme of Charles Fernyhough's book, which is that remembering is less a matter of encoding information, storing it and retrieving a veridical record of what happened, and more a matter of retrieving a memory and adjusting it to current circumstances, something that may then alter the form of the memory for future recollection. Although Fernyhough is aware that these two views on remembering have existed for decades, his point is that lately researchers investigating memory have favoured the latter, the so-called "reconstructive" view. Of course, he is not saying that we have no accurate memories. My daughter remembered a photograph of her playing with the toy kitchen and she was correct (I checked). Fernyhough is simply making the case that reconstruction is the norm rather than the exception. He returns repeatedly to his central message using a sophisticated blend of findings from science, ideas from literature and examples from personal narratives.

The second part of this book's title is The New Science of Memory, chosen, presumably, as a deliberate contrast to the poetic Pieces of Light (taken, perhaps, from Kipling's Just So Stories?). In the early 21st century, "new science" frequently refers to neuroscience, and Fernyhough weaves findings from studies of the brain into each of the book's chapters. We learn, for example, of the crucial function of the hippocampus in many forms of memory ("Whatever you do, take care of your hippocampus" might have been an alternative subtitle for the book); that autobiographical memory depends heavily on medial temporal lobe circuits and systems in the prefrontal cortex; and that in navigating our environment, "head direction cells" and "grid cells" play crucial roles. However, this book is not just another commendation of neuroscience as the source of answers to all our questions about memory and everything else. It is a more rounded work than that, and its judicious use of other sources of evidence has produced an engaging account of remembering.

You are sitting at the table for your evening meal and you ask your seven-year-old child: "What did you do at school today?" The usual answer, in my experience, is: "Nothing." As an adult, you know that this is unlikely: teachers work hard for their living and your child's new-found ability to argue about numbers has been learned somehow. You also find it hard to believe that your child can remember nothing of what has happened during the day. You might respond by adjusting your question to ask about what happened in the playground or what they had for lunch. Whatever the reason for your child's initial response, the difficulties of these conversations reveal that we learn how to talk about our memories; we learn what to tell people, what not to tell them, and in what levels of detail. On the reconstructive view, how we relate a memory to someone else may also have an effect on our own subsequent remembering. Fernyhough writes in fond terms of how he sought to instil in his young children knowledge of their dead grandfather. But he pauses and questions whether he should be altering his children's memories in this way, especially given his views on the malleability of memory. Understanding memory requires that we explain the functioning of the hippocampus, but it also requires us to acknowledge that remembering can involve moral choices.

When planning to give a talk, Fernyhough argues, we draw on relevant memories, including memories of previous talks. From them, we extract some general lessons to help us to plan our talk, such as how to engage the audience, how to keep to time, and how best to cope with the cramped room in which the talk is to be given. It is a mundane example, but deliberately so, because from it he extracts the general contention that memory enables us to imagine future events. If this is so, we might expect those who have serious memory problems, such as amnesia, to experience problems in imagining future scenarios. One might also expect overlap between the brain areas that are active when recalling past events and those active when imagining future ones. Both these predictions have recently received empirical support, and this has added weight to what medieval writers contended: that memory and imagination are intimately related. It also reminds us of one reason why we have such sophisticated memory abilities in the first place: remembering enhances our ability to deal with the present and to imagine different possible futures. Recently, psychologists have argued that being able to do this requires us to construct memories in ways that impose coherence on events and so make them more predictable. However, this also means that our memories often become unreliable records of the past, and many of the distortions of our remembering have arisen because of what remembering is for.

There is a commonplace observation that life passes more quickly as we grow older. One explanation of this effect is that when we are younger we encounter more novel information and so create more new memories. Like travelling through a fast-changing landscape instead of a featureless steppe, youth creates more different memories than does old age. But this is at odds with our experience that mon-otony makes time seem to pass more slowly. Consider the character Dunbar in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22. Surrounded by war and death, Dunbar tries to make life seem to last as long as possible by deliberately seeking out tedium and the company of people he detests because both make time go more slowly. How are we to reconcile this tension between eventfulness extending time and monotony also extending time? One suspects the answer lies in the differences between remembering time past and experiencing time present. Elsewhere in Pieces of Light, Fernyhough produces a touching account of his elderly grandmother's remembering and links it skilfully to findings in the memory literature. He gives a sensitive if critical account of the relationships between trauma and memory, and considers the power of smell in prompting memories (and in the process reminded me why the late John Peel's advice to record one's children talking was sage indeed).

Some readers who want a book on the science of memory may feel this book gives too little detail on the science. Others may think it dwells too long on personal memories and flirts with self-indulgence, while yet others might find the frequent references to literature a distraction from the main narrative. Personally, I found the balance between science, literature and reminiscence refreshing, well judged and at times moving. This is an unusual book but a very rewarding one. Most of all, it provokes one to think about memory, and I could easily have spent this entire review on just one chapter.


Academic, scholarly author and novelist (which he calls "the greatest intellectual and emotional challenge I've faced"), Charles Fernyhough is reader in psychology at Durham University. The part-time post, he says, represents the "most exciting phase of my career. Durham feels small but thinks big ... it fosters and supports ambitious interdisciplinary thinking."

He, his wife (developmental psychologist Elizabeth Meins) and their children Athena and Isaac live "in a village in southwest County Durham. Both kids feature in the book, and Isaac even tried his hand at book signing at a recent event. If I had to live in a city (and if I could afford it), I would choose Sydney's inner North Shore."

The author of The Baby in the Mirror - "an intellectual biography" of Athena, then aged 3 - says of his own earliest memory: "I can picture myself on the floor of our living room, pushing a toy forklift truck across the carpet. I'm two or three, and I'm observing myself in the memory rather than looking at the scene through my own eyes.

"In the book I discuss how puzzling it is that many early memories have this third-person quality. At that age I think I was probably cheerful and shy, with a certain nervous curiosity."

Of his musical sidelines in improvisation ("thrilling for some of the reasons that writing fiction is") and traditional rock, Fernyhough observes: "When you're writing music, you quickly learn that you have your best ideas within five minutes of picking up the instrument. It's taught me that taking a break from an intellectual problem is usually more productive than continuing to bang your head against it."

Karen Shook

Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory

By Charles Fernyhough

Profile, 352pp, £14.99

ISBN 9781846684487

Published 5 July 2012

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