Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Review: Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough

Pieces of Light

Author: Charles Fernyhough
Publisher: HarperCollins 
Date of Publication: January 7, 2014
Pages: 320

"Memory has its own special kind of truth.  It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies and vilifies also, but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events;  and no sane human being ever trusts someone else's version more than his own."
- Salman Rushdie

     Developmental psychologist Charles Fernyhough begins the final chapter of Pieces of Light by saying: "I set out to write about some science, and I ended up by telling a lot of stories."  Indeed he did.  In a little over 200 pages this author has concisely summarized current  memory research.  He enlivens the anatomic and statistical facts with colorful anecdotes and stories which help the reader comprehend what all of this research means on a practical level.  In the process, the author encourages us to think differently about memory and : "Thinking differently about memory requires us to think differently about some of the 'truths' that are closest to the core of our selves."

     In his introduction, Fernyhough states "We need our memories, and we find ways of hanging on to them.  According to the conventional 'possession' view of memory, we do that by filing them away in a kind of internal library, ready to be retrieved as soon as they are needed."   He then goes on to say that "The view that I want to explore in this book is that memory is more like a habit, a process of constructing something from its parts, in similar but subtly changing ways each time, whenever the occasion arises."  It is this reconstructive view of memory that he explores throughout the book.

     In successive chapters the author explores how reconstructed memories are very susceptible to distortion by information provided after the event and by bias.  He distinguishes between semantic memory (memory for facts) and episodic memory (memory for events) and how memories from our own lives involve an integration of these two types of memory.

     He also writes about the evocation of memory by certain stimuli.  In particular, he talks about how certain sensory stimulation can evoke very strong memories (or "involuntary memories").  The classic example of this in literature is Proust's memories of his grandmother which were brought about by the smell and taste of Madeleine cakes in his book In Search of Lost Time.  

     This concept of memories as reconstructions has many critical implications.  The legal system is taking this into account.  More and more, the courts are discounting the reliability of eyewitness testimony in favor of more verifiable evidence.  Memory manipulation is a great concern, especially in the arena of child abuse.  There is great interest in this concept of memory reconstruction in the treatment of memory disorders including amnesia, dementia and post-traumatic stress syndrome.  The chapter on PTSD is particularly interesting, especially since this is a relatively new diagnosis (first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the 1980s).  The successful use of therapy to refocus the memory of  PTSD patients is fascinating.  

     This book is reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell's books in that both authors use data and facts which then are augmented by "real world" narratives.  Fernyhough goes further, however, using many personal anecdotes and family stories.  The chapter which describes his interviews with his 90 year old grandmother are touching as well as enlightening.  I also really enjoyed the segments in which Fernyhough uses literature (Proust, of course, as well as many more contemporary authors) to show how different views of memory are portrayed.  Fernyhough also has the advantage over Gladwell in the fact that he is a scientist and a practitioner in the field rather a reporting journalist.  This author obviously had a thorough command of the information and has a real talent for explaining it on a level that the non-psychologist and non-neuroanatomist can comprehend.  

     This is a very enjoyable study of modern memory research which deserves a wide audience.

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