Fractured Knowledge

Charles Fernyhough
Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory
Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts

(Harper, 2013)

What is the role of memory in our lives? How do our memories of the past define and shape how we envision ourselves in the present and the future? When we lose our memories do we lose ourselves? These are just a handful of the philosophical questions about memory that thinkers have been wrestling with for centuries. In 1890, William James sought to answer some of these questions in his book Principles of Psychology. In it, he laid out a theory of memory as the psyche’s binding thread. James maintained that a man’s self, “[his] inner or subjective being” comprised an ever-shifting stream of consciousness and that memory was the glue that held it together, providing continuity between the self of the past and the self of the present. If this theory sounds revolutionary, it’s because it still is.

We know a great deal more today about the mechanisms of memory than James did, but we aren’t much further along in explaining its relationship to consciousness—a fact that becomes truly astonishing when you consider that James was working without the benefit of advanced scientific technologies, like fMRI machines. In James’s day, “brain mapping” consisted largely of slicing into an actual flesh-and-blood specimen and poking around in there. His ideas about consciousness were built on a combination of existing theories, physical observations of the brain’s behavior, and theoretical extrapolations. Today’s data-worshipping scientists would likely dismiss many of James’s assertions about memory as mere philosophy. And they would have a point. But while reading Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough’s new book on memory, I found myself wondering over and over if James and his ilk weren’t in some ways better off than today’s scientists, whose freedom to advance high-level theories based on the best available information seems increasingly circumscribed by a blind allegiance to the scientific method. These days, if a scientific theory can’t be objectively tested it stands very little chance of appearing in print. The result is a science grounded in fact and often regrettably short on big-picture, paradigm-shifting ideas.

If you’re interested in understanding the basic machinery of memory—how memories are encoded, where they are stored in the brain, and how they are retrieved—Pieces of Light is a great primer. What it isn’t is a significant step forward in understanding the bigger mysteries surrounding memory: what purpose it serves and how it contributes to the formation of the self. This is a particular shame because Fernyhough’s book deals largely with autobiographical memory, the aspect of memory in which “I” plays the starring role. In James’s era, a period when the boundaries between physiology, psychology, and philosophy were more permeable, a book about autobiographical memory would have been expected to grapple directly with these larger questions of the memory’s role in self-awareness. In today’s more stratified scientific world there is such an intolerance of conjecture that Fernyhough is forced to dance around these questions while treating us to a whirlwind tour of the latest fMRI findings. Brain buffs will come away from the book armed with an arsenal of quiz show-worthy facts about the behavior of the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. However, the ultimate utility of this information to the layperson is debatable. Most of us don’t pick up a book like this hoping for an anatomy lesson, but for insights into the human condition, and Fernyhough is too tentative to put himself out on the intellectual ledge that James clambered up so willingly.

It’s hard to fault Fernyhough for playing it safe. He is, after all, just following the rules set forth for him. He offers modest prognostications about how memory might operate based on facts that have been widely vetted and agreed upon, but stops just short of making any kind of real imaginative leap about its role in consciousness. For instance, in chapter 4, “The Sunny Never-Never,” he looks at why the majority of us are unable to access memories from the earliest parts of our lives. Current findings, Fernyhough tells us, demonstrate that children younger than three do, in fact, form and carry around memories, but these memories are fragmentary and not retained over the long haul, because small children lack two things: (1) language, which gives coherence to the barrage of sensory impressions that comprise a memory, and (2) the sense of self required to anchor the experience in autobiographical memory. These findings tickle at something profoundly intriguing. They leave room for the possibility that autobiographical memory and self-awareness are part and parcel of the same thing and that both may hinge on our powers to label and contextualize what we experience. But Fernyhough’s scientific training doesn’t allow him to follow this line of inquiry. The data isn’t there yet and so the ideas are choked off before they have a chance to flourish. The furthest he’ll go in linking memory with consciousness is to say things like, “[to] attain the kind of consciousness we all enjoy, we probably rely on a capacity to make links between our past, present and future selves.” How tepid this sounds compared to James, who wrote, “Where the resemblance and the continuity [of the self] are no longer felt, the sense of personal identity goes too.”

It’s not that Fernyhough doesn’t offer up any theories about the role of memory—the book is full of brief musings, some of them quite interesting. But what he doesn’t offer is some over-arching narrative about memory’s purpose with which to organize these disparate pieces of information. Fernyhough’s unwillingness to reach for a bigger theory of memory’s role in consciousness isn’t a personal or scholarly failing as much as a reflection of the generally anemic quality of today’s scientific inquiry. As neurologist Robert Burton said in a recent interview in Salon, we have become so enamored of the data delivered by our increasingly sophisticated machines that we think we are making great leaps in understanding the brain, but “[i]mproving our technologies without an accompanying breakthrough in thinking about the brain-mind connection is equivalent to upgrading a linotype machine to the world’s greatest printer without having something to say.” When it comes to brain science, we lack, in Burton’s words a, “great underlying new idea or intuition.” This deficit of ambition is particularly noticeable in Fernyhough’s case, because he, like James, is a polymath, splitting his time between psychology and fiction writing. He is not strictly a clinician and his interest in the philosophical, big picture questions is evident throughout Pieces of Light. If only he’d felt empowered to let himself dream on the page as James once did. We aren’t in the habit of crediting this sort of speculative thinking these days, but as history amply demonstrates, real breakthroughs are often catalyzed by a mix of both understanding and intuition.

Contributor

Orli Van Mourik

ORLI VAN MOURIK is Portland-based journalist and fiction writer. Her work has appeared in Psychology Today, Discover Magazine, SEED Magazine, and Brooklyn Based.

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