An Interview with Charles Fernyhough
Dr Charles Fernyhough is a writer and psychologist. His most recent book, The Baby in the Mirror, was critically acclaimed in the UK and has been translated into seven languages. He is a Reader in Psychology at Durham University and has written for the Guardian, Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph.
Questions about Pieces of Light.
CD: Pieces of Light beautifully combines memoir and psychology. Did you have a book model in mind when you started this book?
CF: This book has always felt like a chance to follow up on the approach I took with my previous non-fiction book, The Baby in the Mirror, which is about my daughter Athena's psychological development over her first three years. I wanted to write a science book that read like a novel, and autobiographical memory seemed the perfect topic for continuing with that approach. But in this case, rather than focusing on just one person, I'm telling several people's stories—and my own memories crop up in the book as well.
CD: There have been many metaphors for memory including the intriguing Plan of St Gall mentioned in chapter 7. What would you say is the best modern metaphor for memory (taking into account current theories)?
CF: The discussion of the Plan of St Gall is meant to draw a link between some very prescient medieval views of memory and modern research suggesting that the hippocampus (the brain's powerhouse of memory) works on an essentially spatial basis. As for other metaphors, I use 'collage' quite a lot—it captures the sense of memories being put together from lots of different kinds of information which nevertheless combine to reveal a coherent picture.
CD: Is there an aspect of memory research which you think is in especial need for further research?
CF: There has been huge progress but there is still much to learn. We still don't have a decent comprehensive explanation for childhood amnesia, and I think understanding the role of language in memory will be part of that. We would benefit from knowing more about how memory for trauma works, and that's an area where people's lives could really be changed: if we can find new therapeutic approaches to reducing the pain of certain memories.
CD: I thought chapter 8, which dealt with 'recovered' memory, especially illuminating. Are the findings generally accepted now? Are all methods which claim to retrieve 'recovered' memory discredited? Where does this leave EMDR and hypnosis therapy?
CF: What's been discredited is the idea that trauma memories can be reliably unearthed through therapy. The consensus now is that people don't forget trauma—they certainly don't repress it subconsciously. But they do find ways not to think about it, and so memories for trauma can spontaneously reemerge into consciousness after some time. I would be very sceptical about methods that use hypnosis to unearth 'repressed' memories. We know too much about memory's susceptibility to suggestion and distortion. Simply imagining that something might have happened can increase the likelihood that you will subsequently have a memory of it happening. I give several examples of this in the book.
EMDR is another matter. No one knows how it works, and many are sceptical about the scientific evidence for it. But clinicians and patients I spoke to said that it works: it makes a difference and it changes lives.
CD: I really enjoyed the way you brought in pertinent extracts from some of my favourite novels to illustrate what you were saying. Is there a novelist you hadn't mentioned in the book who you think is especially good at dealing with the plasticity of memory?
CF: I could have written plenty about Kazuo Ishiguro's treatment of how the past underpins the present in books like The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled. I think the latter is his masterpiece.
CD: Does your research as a psychologist feed into your life as a novelist?
CF: The novelist and the psychologist are asking similar questions: How does it feel? What is it like? How we can describe and account for human experience? They use different methods to get at similar questions, and they can learn much from each other. Studying psychology is a great discipline for a novelist, but the best novelists have written about it already. The scientific framework just gives you another way of looking at things. My new novel is very much focused on neuroscience and psychology; the next will having nothing at all to do with the brain!
CD: At the end of the book you mention that memories are changing because we know more about how they work. How do you think memories might change in the future?
CF: There's been a lot of talk recently about how digital technologies are changing the way we use our memories. We are probably relying less on memorising information and becoming more savvy about where to go for the information we need: the Google Effect. But it was ever thus. The arrival of movable type printing would have meant that people didn't have to carry books around in their heads in the same way. Language itself is a technology, and it will have shaped our remembering since we first started to talk.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
CF: Snails are around me all the time, especially in this weather. They crawl up onto the window and I spend a lot of time inspecting them from underneath. They're fascinating and quite calming.
CD: What is your proudest moment?
CF: Being a dad to two amazing children gives me lots of proud moments, but being there at their births was the most special of all.
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
CF: I watched my father die, far too young. My life was never going to be the same after that.
CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
CF: Dunblane, 13 March 1996.
CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
CF: I would like to be braver.
CD: What is happiness?
CF: Playing jazz guitar after a good day's writing.
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
CF: Make tea, catch up quickly with internet stuff and then engage Freedom (programme that blocks your computer's internet access) and start writing.