Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough
What is a memory? Can a particular memory be said to exist? In Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough shows that this last question is an impossible one because it relies on a mistaken view of what memories are. Memories are, he says, 'mental constructions, created in the present moment, according to the demands of the present.' It is more like a habit, reconstructed anew each time. This makes it unreliable since each reconstruction tends to be different with emotions and knowledge attributed to the memory which were only acquired after the event.
This new way of looking at memory has fascinating ramifications and the chapters that follow look at each one of these in turn. This would make an excellent book in its own right, but what takes the book to a new plane are the personal reflections of the author (who is a novelist as well as a psychologist) which consider not only his own memories but examples of writing from novelists such as Penelope Lively and A.S. Byatt.
Chapter one is called 'Getting Lost' and describes the latest findings on how the brain is used to remember places we used to know. This is illustrated by the author's experience of visiting Cambridge - a place he used to know very well and he describes the odd sense of familiarity superimposed on the feeling of strangeness as he gradually becomes reorientated again. He then describes returning to Sydney - another place he knew well for a short period - and muses over the difference between revisiting a place in imagination and memory.
The second chapter compares memories that are activated by smell (and taste) to those activated by sight. Smell tends to bring forth disordered emotional memories - as Marcel Proust observed with his series of memories evoked by the taste of the madeleine in 'In Search of Lost Time'. The explanation - that smell and taste are transmitted to the memory centres of the brain by a different pathway from the other senses - is clearly explained and interesting. An intriguing example of this was Andy Warhol's 'Scent Museum' - who used a different perfume for every three years of his life and then stored a sample in a vial so that he could remind himself of that particular era simply by opening the top. I'd not heard of this before and now feel like starting one of these for myself.
In chapter four I learnt about the difference between various sorts of early memories. In some the viewpoint is preserved, but in others the memory is from the outside - a third person memory (an 'observer' memory). It used to be generally accepted that earliest memories were rarely earlier than age two and a half because it was necessary to have verbal encoding in order to lay down the memory. However, a study from New Zealand of a child who had an operation at five months showed that the child could recall aspects of life in hospital two years later, but these memories had vanished eleven months after that.
Chapter five dealt with the processing of memories and how new experiences are remembered more than established ones. I also learnt that recall works better in the same context as the one in which the memories were laid down - for instance when witnesses revisit a crime scene. The chapter ends with a poignant personal recollection of the author's walk with his father.
Chapter six looked at how it is possible to influence memory - to even invent the memory of someone else by conversation and instil false memories. 'Social contagion' is where a memory incorporates erroneous information supplied (intentionally or unintentionally) by someone else and 'rich false memories' are when whole episodes are invented and retained as memories. I also learnt why witnesses to a crime are kept separately by police until their evidence is taken: 'collaborative inhibition' occurs when people are allowed to discuss an event and this has the effect of them remembering less about it.
In chapter seven introduced to the intriguing Plan of St Gall. It is an invented building and was designed as an aid to meditation in the form of a medieval 9th century manuscript. It provides a way of organising knowledge and corresponds very well with the modern view of memory - using a mental image of a place in order to organise thoughts.
I also came across 'Hyperthymestic syndrome' where the sufferer dwells obsessively on the past and recalls it in extraordinary detail. An examination of the brain activity of these patients has led to more clues of how not only memory but imagination works because it often turns out that when memory is affected, visualising the future is too.
Chapter eight looked at the difference between an imagined 'memory' and a real one. I leant that 'imagination inflation' is where an imagined event becomes confused with the memory of something that really happened (an occupational hazard for a novelist) and this led neatly to a very interesting section on the new ideas about 'recovered' memories. A study has shown that memories 'recovered' during therapy are likely to be uncorroborated.
Chapter nine described some very interesting work on how a device called a 'Senscam' can help amnesiacs by taking wide angle photographs of events in a person's life which are then reviewed several times.
Chapter ten considered 'flashbulb memories' and the tendency we all have to recall the personal context when we hear of shocking events e.g. the death of Princess Diana. However, most flashbulb memories are of personal events, and once again the was a clear explanation of why this should happen in terms of brain structure and neurotransmitters. This led on to a discussion of post traumatic stress disorder and an interesting technique which has helped to alleviate it called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. The therapy allows a different sort of remembering.
I found chapter eleven, The Martha Tapes, especially interesting and involved a project to record the memories of the author's Jewish grandmother. This led to a discussion of how our memories and ability to remember change as we age, as well as the reasons for the change.
In chapter twelve Charles Fernyhough considered various aspects of memory including the importance of memory to fiction writing; would or should we get rid of horrible memories which still upset us greatly; and the implications of new technology to memory in the future.
These are just examples of some of the subjects covered in this impressive book. It really is packed full of interest - part psychology, part literary-appreciation and part memoir - all of it lucidly and, very often, luminously written. I highly recommend to anyone interested in memory (even if you didn't know you were) but particularly to anyone interested in creative writing.
Many thanks to Profile books for sending me a copy.