Short-listed for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, the Best Book of Ideas Prize, and the Society of Biology Book Awards • Book of the Year: Sunday Times, Sunday Express, and New Scientist
“In its stunning blend of the literary with the scientific, Pieces of Light illuminates ordinary and extraordinary stories to remind us that who we are now has everything to do with who we were once, and that identity itself is intricately rooted the transporting moments of remembrance. We are what we remember.” — André Aciman, author of Out of Egypt and Harvard Square
A new consensus is emerging among cognitive scientists: rather than possessing fixed, unchanging memories, we create new recollections each time we are called upon to remember. As psychologist Charles Fernyhough explains, remembering is an act of narrative imagination as much as it is the product of a neurological process. In Pieces of Light, he illuminates this compelling scientific breakthrough in a series of personal stories, each illustrating memory's complex synergy of cognitive and neurological functions.
Combining science and literature, the ordinary and the extraordinary, this fascinating tour through the new science of autobiographical memory helps us better understand the ways we remember—and the ways we forget.
Psychologist Fernyhough (A Thousand Days of Wonder) aims to debunk the myth that memory is purely retrospective memories, he argues, are not "heirloom from the past" summoned back for display in the present; they are momentary reconstructions. Fernyhough contends that neuroscience is crucial in solving the puzzle of memory, but his primary means of shedding light on the topic is through personal and historical anecdotes. This tactic can feel contrived at times, but it makes his examination welcoming and accessible to lay readers. His analysis is wide-ranging, touching on everything from the mundane lapses in memory that make a labyrinth of a familiar city, to brain damage and traumatic memories mediated and distorted by intense emotions. He also covers a wide swath of literary and historical ground, including the olfactory and musical remembrances of Proust and memory exercises of the Middle Ages. What is abundantly clear throughout is that remembering has always been a deeply imaginative process. Few of Fernyhough's points stand out as groundbreaking, but his notion of memory as "a way of being with other people" is a refreshingly social take on an intensely personal experience.