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

When the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded on the morning of January 1985, the psychologist Ulric Neisser conducted a survey in which he asked his class at Emory University to describe where they were, who they were with and what they were doing when they first heard of the disaster. He collected the questionnaires and kept them for three years. He then contacted some 44 participants and asked them to recall the same questions and write down what they remembered of that day. The point of the exercise was to test the ‘flashbulb’ accuracy of memories taken from historic events in time. The results were startling. A quarter of the students in his class misremembered every detail, but were so sure their memories were correct that they insisted their previous report must have been falsified.
Charles Fernyhough’s book takes the same stance as Neisser’s experiment in that he explores the fallibility of human memory and he uses his skills as a novelist and an academic writer to draw the reader into this fascinating subject. The author suggests that even trusted notions of memory, such as the ‘Proustian’ effect, in which tastes or smells can evoke strong memories, can even be false. Evidently, Andy Warhol would change his perfume every three months or so in the belief that when he smelt a discarded one, the time in which he wore it would leap back into his memory. But experiments into Proustian memories are as likely to be false as any others and the same goes for the vivid flashbacks’ associated with post traumatic stress disorder. In studies it has been shown that victims tend to construct images and memories that record what they fear might have happened, rather than what actually did occur.
There is no doubt that memories are incredibly important as they go to make up the person that we are. To say that most of them therefore are false is alarming at best. Fernyhough however sees this as a mark of success for the human race, saying that we are natural born story tellers and our imagination may be the key to our survival as a species. This is because as human beings, we are able to foretell and dream about future events. An interesting theory but not one that is without its detractors. We need to carry an enormous amount of information inside our brains on a daily basis and most of this surely needs to be accurate? To prove his theory, Fernyhough has even used his own children as ‘lab rats’ and implanted false memories of their grandfather taking them on a visit to a nearby zoo. When later questioned the children do in fact, recall the visit. Fernyhough then asks the reader, are these memories more or less real because they were implanted?
This book perhaps raises more questions than it answers and at times can frustrate the reader, but it does give a different slant on the time honoured definition of memory and shake up the foundations of what we all thought we remembered. A good read for anyone interested in how the brain retains information and memories serve the human species as a whole.