The New Science of Memory

From The Telegraph:

Pieces-of-Light11_2306572bMemory: according to one writer, it’s that “crazy woman that hoards coloured rags and throws away food”. To another, it’s “a dog that lies down where it pleases”. Coleridge bemoaned how the flotsam that rises above forgetfulness consists of “worthless straws”. Jane Austen also complained about the capricious quality of memory, “sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control!” But she declared in Mansfield Park that “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory.” The subject is entrancing because we all know how memory makes the past both fascinating and frustrating. While researching a biography of Einstein, I found that my subject gave a different account of a key experiment at different times. As a science reporter, I was often struck by how eyewitnesses differed in their recollections of events, or muddled details of a disaster. Over the years I have had fascinating conversations with memory researchers, from Elizabeth Loftus, whose cunning experiments reveal how easily memory can be warped, to Eleanor Maguire, who has studied taxi drivers and amnesiacs to reveal how the brain’s hippocampus acts as a spatial scaffold for memories.

When it comes to the big questions about the nature of autobiographical memory, Charles Fernyhough is as informed as he is enchanted. But Pieces of Light does not dwell on the molecular mechanics of memory, or take the reader on a didactic trudge through the enchanted loom of connections between cells in a brain. Instead, the Durham University psychologist tells stories to explore the deepest nature of memory, and does it beautifully. His exploration of how our minds are shaped by the past ranges from Andy Warhol’s “scent museum” – the artist switched colognes on a routine basis and kept the part-used bottles, so that one whiff could transport him back to a given time – to flashbulb memories that can be as wrong as they are vivid.

More here.