When I was teaching literature at Cambridge, we introduced a themed section to the exam paper for the purposes of comparative analysis. One of the themes we picked for the 20th century was that of memory, and I fell on it with gusto. Memory is a fantastic theme for this era for a number of reasons: first there was a big sea change in philosophy which shifted its base from the study of what we could know (epistemology) to what it was to be human (ontology). This arose out of a fascination with phenomenology or the study of perception, and it provoked a corresponding shift in literary themes – if you think of some of the great modernists like Woolf and Kafka and Joyce, you can see how interest in the sensorial experience of living has a profound effect on how and why they write. Then Freud’s founding of psychoanalysis encouraged much reflection on the way memory functioned in the telling of life stories – Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was groundbreaking in being the first novel to take the drama of human consciousness as its central focus. And then the 20th century proved to be full of traumatic events in terms of world wars and the Holocaust, events that showed beyond any doubt how essential to our sense of identity and to our sanity is the ability to narrate a comprehensible story. Memory – what it does for us, and what it does to us – was a key concept in all these areas.
You can imagine how happy I was, then, to be sent a copy of Charles Fernyhough’s Pieces of Light; The New Science of Memory for review. Fernyhough is an academic psychologist with an interest in neuroscience, and his book is based on the recent scientific discoveries about the processes of memory. Neuroscience shows how memory is not the replay of stored video tapes of past experiences, but rather the laborious marriage of sensations, visual memories, temporal or spacial cues and extracted meaning, all channelled through different parts of the brain in response to the demands of the present. The complicated way in which we reconstruct our memories offers some explanation for their high rate of fallibility. We can be easily confused as to whether the source of a memory is real or fictional (hence we can remember other people’s memories as if they were our own), and the more emotion connected to a ‘remembered’ event, the less likely it is that we are remembering correctly bcause emotion produces its own effects – as Fernyhough asserts, ‘vividness is no guarantee of authenticity’. Fernyhough’s book is itself a marriage of personal narrative and science, as he explores his own memories, those of his family (his young daughter and 93-year-old grandmother) as well as recent case histories to exemplify his theories.
I had a high old time arguing with this book. It’s a very good book – well written, carefully constructed and winningly comprehensive in its scope. The differences arose purely out of the fact that scientists and arts researchers peer down opposite ends of the telescope. In the conclusion to the book, Fernyhough admits that ‘So far, scientists have not paid a huge amount of attention to the importance of narrative for remembering’, which is of course the place where I begin. Memory is important for two enormous tasks, the creation of identity, and the production of answers (wrong ones better than none at all) to the existential questions ‘what will happen next?’ and ‘what should I do about it?’. The problems come about when these two axes are in conflict, when something we have done is unacceptable, or when something that happened to us is inexplicable. In such cases, our unspooling narrative hits a nasty hitch, and either our sense of self or our belief in the universe are threatened with profound change. Most narratives with a strong interest in memory in the twentieth century are exploring precisely this shadowy area, and coming up with some pretty fascinating and complex answers. I found the science in Fernyhough’s book to be a bit dull and reductive in comparison particularly when confronted with passages like:
‘As expected, the autobiographical memory system of the medial temporal lobe was thoroughly activated, as well as regions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (deep down in the front of the brain) and posterior cingulated (in the middle towards the back). For more specific events the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex was particularly busy fitting with the idea that this area of the brain is particularly important for memory searches for specific events.’
Maybe one day science will locate the precise synapse, highly influential on memory, that insists we be monumentally right all the time and find a drug that will disable it, which I will be happy to purchase for the right price if it comes in a form I can slip into Mister Litlove’s supper (he will doubtless be plotting the same thing for me). The conclusions that science allows us to draw with regard to memory, for instance that we are more likely to remember what we have processed more thoroughly (hence books we’ve reviewed stick better than books we haven’t), or that the capacity for recognition does not diminish with age even if recollection does, or that shocking cultural events (flashbulb moments) are more accurately recalled when we are personally implicated in them, can seem quite self evident even if they have the benefit of being reliable true.
I was particularly interested to read the chapter on traumatic memory, which from the psychoanalytic and literary perspective I know a fair bit about. And once again my issues with scientific approaches rose to the fore. Fernyhough examines the case of a lorry driver who had a head-on collision with an elderly (and as it turned out, hungover) gent to whom the accident proved fatal. The lorry driver was severely traumatised but the use of a new technique (EMDR) helped him considerably. It involves the patient following a moving LED display, much like following the swinging watch chain of the hypnotist. The belief is that this helps the patient to remember much more about the event and to create, therefore, a memory that is less dominated and distorted by certain key elements. With the help of this process, the lorry driver finally understood that the elderly gent had been weaving all over the road before the impact, and that he had an excessive amount of alcohol in his blood. He had been told these things before, but his own sense of guilt and trauma had got in the way of him taking them in properly. Once he no longer felt so overwhelmingly guilty, he could carry on with his life.
So, all fair and good, only Fernyhough goes on to debunk this technique as having little scientific proof: ‘There is no strong evidence that EMDR causes anything to happen that wouldn’t result from regular cognitive behavioural therapy, using techniques such as exposure and flooding’ he writes, which had me scrawling NO in the margins and recoiling in horror. There may not be much difference in what the processes are ultimately aiming to do, but the way they do them is significantly different. Exposure and flooding are brutal devices. I’ll give you an example. UK readers will probably remember the Hillsborough disaster, when a section of the stands collapsed at a football match. As many people were trampled underfoot or suffocated in the rush to escape as were killed by the actual collapse of the stands. It was a particularly horrible accident that left many traumatised. One of the trauma cases, a young boy, was taken from his home and sent to board in a room whose walls were papered with photographs from the disaster. This is the basic idea of exposure and flooding – lots of attention to the event so that it becomes familiar and normalised and the memories have less impact. As you may well imagine, it simply made the poor child a great deal worse. This case has always stuck in my mind for the sheer rage I felt on the child’s behalf as well as my utter disbelief that anyone could possibly think this would help. So that’s a good example of how my memories are forged in the furnace of emotion and unresolved questions. But it’s also an example of how I feel science can forget the living, suffering individuality of the person it deals with in its focus on rules, laws and quantifiable outcomes.
As a student of the arts, my interest in memory is less concerned with how it works than what we do with it. Reading this book, I had the disconcerting experience of feeling I know something about memory that originates from a very different set of interests and intents than scientific theory inhabits, and it was not always easy to make the two join up. But all credit must go to Charles Fernyhough who does take an interdisciplinary approach to his subject (his final chapter in particular arrived right in my the middle of my interests) and who is never afraid to both explain all the possible solutions to the problems of memory and challenge them. He also explained the very reason why I would be biased against this particular book: its revelations are things I have already thought about. Therefore, I remember the strong emotions provoked in me by the original epiphanies and my experience in the present is placed at a disadvantage. For anyone interested in memory who has not studied it in any form, this book would, I am quite sure, prove to be a fascinating and provocative introduction.