The Science of Memory

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.

15 thoughts on “The Science of Memory

  1. You wouldn’t like to come over for tea, would you? There are so many things here I’d like to discuss with you that that seems the only way forward. So, I’m going to take up just one and that a very tangential point. I’m interested in what you said right at the beginning about the themed section of your exam paper. Did you find that that worked? I ask because earlier this year I was talking with an Australian academic about their equivalent of ‘A’ levels in which literature is studying in a similar way. His complaint was that the students then came on to university with a very skewed impression of the texts that they’d studied. If you tried to suggest to them, for example, that ‘Twelfth Night’ was about anything other than gender they would look at you in a pitying way that implied you really hadn’t understood the play at all. I would hope that Cambridge students might see past the trees to the wood beyond, but I just wondered.

    • Tea sounds wonderful! Seriously the internet needs virtual tea rooms next for all of us who want to hang out together!

      We were kind of, well, obsessed is probably not too strong a word, about getting students to see all around the texts, and to think critically and creatively in an independent way. So we always worked hard to get them to appreciate a piece of writing in its entirety. Plus they had to juggle the books they’d been studying over exam papers with three sections: the comparative element, but also single author questions and critical commentary. They weren’t sure who would come up where, and that kept them guessing a bit! The hard thing was trying to persuade the women students not to try to memorise the entire book and every possible line of interpretation before going into the exam! But then that’s Cambridge for you – we do tend to go off the other end of the scale which is NOT always a good thing.

  2. Sounds like a well done and interesting book and I must say the author’s name is splendid. I agree with you that science often forgets that there are human beings connected to the things they are studying. So what if something like EMDR has no scientific proof, if it helps people that is all that really matters.

    • Ha, it is a joyful name, isn’t it? And you’re right, a very well done book. If it hadn’t been good, I wouldn’t have had anywhere near such satisfying arguments with it.🙂 Plus I completely agree with you – what works, works, let it be.

  3. I always like to temper science on human functioning with an approach based on mindfulness and compassion. Science can be revealing and I don’t dismiss it. The experiments on how people’s opinions can vary depending on how they’re primed even in very subtle ways are fascinating. But always I remember how primitive medicine is, neurology and psychiatry especially, and how the last lobotomies are very recent, how the ice pick through the brow was legitimate psychiatric treatment not long ago, and that cutting off women’s bits was standard procedure for unhappy women not that long before that. So kudos to you for standing up for the importance of narrative! And I completely agree that surrounding a boy with photos of a traumatic event is much the equivalent of some of the above, though fortunately more amenable to reversal.

    • Lilian, what I felt at the end of the book (and should have put in the review, only it was already too long!) was that science will undoubtedly prove to be very revealing in the long run, but it’s only in its infancy now in matters of the mind. Plus, like you, I can recall how inefficient and random medicine was until very very recently. Whatever we do with science, we should keep on asking good questions about its aims, processes and intentions. That’s true for anything that has the power to change our lives. Tempering it in the present with mindfulness and compassion sounds an excellent way to proceed!

  4. ‘vividness is no guarantee of authenticity’ how true! I can’t agree with it more. Do you think there’s any new revelations here that can cut some slacks for those who claim to have written a memoir, but actually is partially fiction, or a nice fusion of facts and fiction? Also, your post is most timely for me because I’ve just embarked on a slow read of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I must say, it’s an experience, albeit I’ve only started reading about 12 pages.😉 Phenomenology? Are current academics still chewing on this or have they moved on to other kinds of postmodern thoughts to define our experiences? From my very vague memory dating back to the late 70’s when I was in graduate school (yes, that long), that was the ‘in’ thing.

    • Arti, the element of fiction that is inevitable in memoir has had a very good workover in the essay collection Truth in Nonfiction edited by David Lazar. I can warmly recommend that! As for phenomenology, academics will refer to it in the context of its era, but I don’t expect there are very many still working with or on it (if there are, please do pipe up and let us know!). Alas, the ‘in’ thing changes so fast these days! I’m not even sure I know what it IS at the moment.🙂

  5. ‘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).’ I need some of that drug too, for my partner AND my entire family!

    I really enjoyed this piece and will make a note of the book; I’m interested in memory but a bit of a dullard when it comes to science so haven’t read anything about it.

    That poor little boy though; I am shocked that something like that could happen so recently. I hope he did recover in the end.

    • Ha! There is money to be made, I am sure, in a ‘humbling potion’ – if only I could mix it myself in my kitchen!🙂 I am not at all good with science – as ably demonstrated, my brain just doesn’t work in that way. But to be fair, apart from a few sentences of brain jargon, this books is very clear and straightforward, and the case studies are extremely interesting. The story about the poor traumatised child has bothered me for years. I never knew what happened to him, the book I was reading didn’t say. But I really hope he found some peace of mind at last.

  6. I have a feeling I like the topic more than I would like the book. I like to think of memory as something magical to some extent and don’t want it to be stripped.
    I couldn’t care less which of my synapses is activated when I smell something which triggers a memory.
    Exposure to the traumatic event, photos of it… what cruel, cruel idea. Nobody should be turned into a robot in order to overcome trauma (I think that’s the only way you would be able to endure it). I think that’s not a way to make sense. At the heart of so many trauma’s lies the fact that it doesn’t make sense.

    • I completely agree that the inability to make sense of something lies at the heart of trauma, as well as a feeling of complete helplessness and unexpectedness. I thought what they did to that poor child was desperately cruel – surely the least bit of thought would have suggested the disadvantages of such a method? But I do know how cavalier doctors can be in difficult cases. I know what you mean about memory being magical (it’s a nice word for it). I always think of Duras’s Hiroshima mon amour – that’s about the most magical representation of memory and forgetting that I’ve seen/read.

  7. This is a really great review from the two perspectives of psychology and literature and I found it fascinating as all of my work, both clinical and creative writing, is about memory and I’ve spent decades reading literature from psychoanalytic, behavioral, and literary points of view. You sum up the literary trajectory succinctly and helpfully. I have to say one thing about EMDR that I always find funny. Following the LED light causing your eyes to move is not was causes the healing, though the founder of the method developed some bogus theory about how it did something to the brain. In fact, following the light or the hypnotist’s watch is a kind of distracting mechanism that calms the person while recounting the memory within a NEW NARRATIVE that is less threatening. It keeps the person grounded partly on something innocuous occurring in the safe present while rearranging the horror of the past into a story in which one survived with strength and resilience and shed guilt and loss. In other words, the light is just a red herring in “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.” It’s a version of plain old behavioral desensitization and cognitive restructuring of a new story. Hope you get to read this because your review definitely struck a nerve. Positive of course.

  8. It’s a fascinating topic and one I’d love to read more about, but I think I might have been too intimidated to pick up the book since I know so little about it going in. You always manage to take a (seemingly to me) unwieldy subject and make it much more approachable and interesting. I cannot imagine anyone taking or allowing that boy to be subjected to all those images–science can be a little scary sometimes–they forget who’s on the other end too easily even if they are ultimately just trying to help.

  9. After working with Alzheimer’s patients I have been fascinated by memory. The patients where I volunteered couldn’t remember that they had eaten lunch 5 minutes before but could recall in graphic details things in their lives from 20 years ago. This book sounds very interesting but that “flooding” concept sounds positively primeval.

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