Pieces of Light: the New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough

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Pieces of Light: the New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough

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Buy Pieces of Light: the New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: A surprisingly readable textbook presenting a different way of looking at memory. Difficult to use for research, but excellent for a newcomer to the topic.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: July 2012
Publisher: Profile Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846684487

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Over the years, I've seen the human memory at its best and worst. I watched my Nan suffer with Alzheimer's to the point she couldn't remember who anyone was, but also had a colleague who won a silver medal at the Memory Olympics for his ability to remember long strings of items. I also studied memory as part of a psychology degree but, perhaps ironically, I can no longer remember much of what I learned.

In Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory, Charles Fernyhough proposes a different way of looking at memory. He suggests that current research shows that memories are not all locked away in a vault ready for retrieval, but that every time we have a memory, we are rebuilding it on each occasion. He shows how this can mean people of different ages will remember things from different parts of their lives, depending on how their brains are wired and what can cause forgetting.

Although he doesn't specifically mention Alzheimer's, he talks about what can act as a block to memory in various ways and how traumatic events can take their own hold over our memories but can, in turn, be handled. There is a brief mention of how seemingly long forgotten events can be sparked into life with the right cues and how memories can be falsely generated or influenced by external factors, particularly in the very young.

Fernyhough writes in a very narrative style, which is unusual in what is essentially a textbook, but which gives the book a better flow than it may otherwise have had. He has written a novel and that experience stands him in good stead here. Even when the material does become a little more complicated, as he reports of research carried out on specific areas of the brain, his style means the book is always readable.

Even with my own studies in memory being so long ago, I was frequently fascinated by the research details here. Particular areas that concerned me were touched upon, with the ability to remember large amounts of data mentioned, if not fully explained or backed with research. More interesting to me personally was when he talked about how memory trick us into thinking life goes faster as you age, as that is something I have long felt is happening to me.

This factor helped me engage with the book more than I otherwise might have done, but all the way through I found myself thinking back and relating to areas Fernyhough discussed to my own life. As he talked about memory formation in childhood, I was able to find examples and there was a feeling of familiarity in other areas. Although I had a period of studying psychology, the information is so well presented that a reader will need no advanced knowledge of the subject to relate to the book in the same way I did. Some of the mentions of specific brain areas may get a little confusing, but there is a helpful diagram to show which parts he is talking about, which I referred to often.

If there is a downside to the book, it is that the narrative style works against the ability to find specific information quickly. It helps with readability and would increase the readership, but slightly hinders the use of the book as a research tool or as a traditional textbook. In addition, whilst the style makes it a decent read, it only explores memory and doesn't give any information on how to improve it, which the shelves of many bookstores suggest many people may be looking for.

However, as a starting point for those looking to find a little more about memory generally, or as a textbook for those new to studying psychology, this is a valuable resource. It is very easy to read and will encourage those who wish to do so to dig a little deeper. It has certainly awakened my interest in memory more than I recall the much drier textbooks of my psychology course doing.

For another entirely different approach to the topic, try Memory by Harriet Harvey Wood

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Buy Pieces of Light: the New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Pieces of Light: the New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough at Amazon.com.

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