Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory, By Charles Fernyhough

We don't just have memories; we make them. Art, as well as science, can help to understand how.

Jonathan Gibbs
Tuesday 21 August 2012 11:23

Like Rosencrantz, in Tom Stoppard's play, I can't remember my earliest memory. ("No, it's no good, it's gone. It was too long ago.") But thanks to Charles Fernyhough's new book, I begin to understand why. Research into why we remember so little from our early childhood has shown that even very young babies can remember things, so it's not simply that we're incapable of storing and then retrieving information at that age in the form of memories.

We shouldn't think of memory like this at all, Fernyhough says: "We do not 'have' memories; we construct them when we need them." It should come as no surprise that the end of "childhood amnesia" seems to coincide with the acquisition of language, and with the development of what is called "autonoetic consciousness": the ability to put oneself inside one's memories, looking out.

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Fernyhough is a reader in psychology at Durham University, and the great benefit of his book is that it is bang up-to-date in terms of research. So we get insights into current thinking on trauma and its treatment, memory acquisition and loss, and evolutionary explanations of memory, which suggest that it is there to help us predict the future.

Imagination and memory, after all, are closely linked – as the courts are beginning to recognise, in the way they handle eyewitness testimonies. It's a curious twist that being able to call up moments in our past might, in evolutionary terms, be nothing more than a (mostly) pleasant by-product.

So, memories are about the present as much as the past, but also as much about space as about time. There are some excellent descriptions here of the work of the hippocampus, which helps create a "spatial platform" on which we are able to enact our memories. Fernyhough doesn't just want to give us the science, however.

He is a writer and novelist, and there are nods aplenty to the usual literary references in these matters (Borges, Nabokov, Proust), although he does usefully point out that the generally accepted idea of a "Proustian moment" is a misreading of the book. Marcel's childhood doesn't flood back all at once when he tastes the tea-soaked madeleine; he has to work hard to link the sensation to a memory.

As with his earlier book on child development (The Baby in the Mirror), Fernyhough is not shy of putting himself and his family centre stage, in passages that mix self-experiment and memoir. Perhaps it was my parenthood-fuddled brain at the time, but I preferred those passages in that book.

Here, these sections – which include a walk on the Essex coast to conjure up his father, and interviews with his grandmother about her childhood in East London – drift too close to the work of writers who, frankly, do it better. This – and the inexorable march of science – stops the book being definitive, but it remains a fascinating snapshot of where our thinking stands on the subject.

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