Journalist and novelist Orli Van Mourik reviews Charles Fernyhough’s new book Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts (Harper, 2013):
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 [William] James clambered up so willingly.
Her argument is that the father of modern psychology, William James, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, was unencumbered by the existence of modern technology capable of imaging the brain; James was therefore able to speculate, using intuition and imagination, about consciousness in a way that Fernyhough cannot because of modern science’s demand for empirical evidence: “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.”
This situation is unfortunate, she writes, because “real breakthroughs are often catalyzed by a mix of both understanding and intuition.”
In a good companion piece to the previous one, Daniel Lende, associate professor in anthropology at the University of South Florida, riffs on the voices we all carry around with us inside our heads:
A pastiche of a post, putting together ideas and research on inner voices:
-How to document the conversations we carry on with ourselves most everyday (in the West at least)
-The importance of inner voices for rebuilding our notion of mental illness
-The role hearing voices (and working with those voices) can play in therapy for schizophrenia
-What it’s like to be without such an inner voice
-The inner voices in addiction.
The post points to how we might rethink clinical practice and laboratory tests in ways that reflect better the natural history of our own voices, and the power of language in our lives. That, in turn, would lead to both conceptual reworkings and applied impact.
Lende incorporates an amazing amount of material from various disciplines, with links included for many of his sources. His emphasis is on our use of language and on implications for mental health practices.
If you find interdisciplinary approaches like this one as fascinating as I do, check out this blog’s description of neuroanthropology.
Or (see previous item) you’re not as fascinated as I am by interdisciplinary approaches to literature and other art forms, see Alissa Quart’s analysis: “Applying neuroscience to the study of literature is fashionable. But is it the best way to read a novel?”
Attorney Adam D. Chandler describes how his life mirrors:
a recently published study by John Pachankis and Mark Hatzenbuehler. They have substantiated what’s called the “Best Little Boy in the World” hypothesis, first put forward in 1973 in a book by Andrew Tobias, then writing under a pseudonym. It’s the idea that young, closeted men deflect attention from their sexuality by investing in recognized markers of success: good grades, athletic achievement, elite employment and so on. Overcompensating in competitive arenas affords these men a sense of self-worth that their concealment diminishes.
Biographies do not commonly lurk in stuffy academic journals, but there was mine, in that study in the latest issue of Basic and Applied Social Psychology. It might as well have been subtitled: “The Adam Chandler Story.”