This book is part of a series put out by Scientific American magazine that collects articles on a specific topic of interest, in this case memory.
I’ll get straight to the point:
Pros: The style is readable and concise, and the book is well-organized and full of fascinating tidbits [Note: when I say “well-organized,” it’s clearly a collection of past articles of various types, and so there are a mix of short pieces, long-ish pieces, and an interview or two. However, these inconsistent “chapters” are placed in sections in a logical fashion. Furthermore, I expected much more repetitiveness from this type of collection than there was.]
Cons: First, the Kindle version that I read had lots of typos, and they were systematic typos. [Fun fact, considering this is a book on memory. My memory was that this book had typos throughout, but when I looked back through to review it, I noticed it was only some chapters, but—influentially—including the last.] By “systematic typos” I mean the same characters were replaced throughout with the wrong character(s.) While this isn’t the kind of typo that leads to confusion, it’s the kind that makes one say, “Did you really not have anyone look this over after it was machine-converted, you lazy …?” Second, because it’s a collection of magazine articles, one might see a piece from recent years right next to one from the 1990’s. This wouldn’t necessarily be anything to concern one, and might even be a positive. However, once one has seen the aforementioned laziness, it makes one wonder whether half the information isn’t outdated.
The 30 pieces that make up this collection are divided among seven sections to provide a logical organization and progression of the material.
Section 1 explains what memory is and why it seems to work so well in some cases but so poorly in others.
The second section explores the neuroscience of memory and how the brain turns experiences into memories.
Section 3 offers insight into the connection between learning and memory. This describes some fascinating discoveries on the importance of white matter (not the cells that store the memories, but the ones that connect those that do) and the role of sleep.
Section 4 is where it really gets interesting. This section investigates amnesia, hypnosis, and déjà vu.
The fifth section considers a few of the many ways that memory can fail. Besides discussing how false memories are created and attempts to erase traumatic memories, the section also explores the connection between emotion and memory.
Section 6 answers why memory gets worse with age, with discussion of a few of the methods for reducing this tendency.
The last section describes some of the methods used to improve memory. Here, I will offer the same warning as I did for the last review I did on a book of this topic (i.e. “Memory: A Very Short Introduction”), which is to say that if this is your primary purpose for buying the book, you probably want to look for a more specialized book. (Where the AVSI book was a cursory summation of proven techniques, this one focuses on the science of the moment [e.g. experimental medicines and blueberries] and not well-established techniques.)
The graphics are those from the magazine, and, therefore, tend to be detailed and “slick.” This can be a disadvantage when reading on a base model Kindle, such as mine. Even with the graphics expanded, the font is tiny and hard to read. Also, the color graphics on a black-and-white device would likely be clearer as simple line diagrams rather than complex computer renderings. However, most of the articles have little to no graphics, and so it’s not a problem that comes up with great frequency.
I’ll compare this book with the Oxford University Press “A Very Short Introduction” on the same topic that I just reviewed because they are clear competitors. This book covers a broader range of topics, including some intriguing ones such as: hypnosis and memory, déjà vu, the role of fitness on memory, and more detailed information about the connection between sleep and memory. In other words, this book is full of the latest (at the time) research of a nature intended to attract popular science magazine readers. However, the AVSI book is more concisely arranged to get a neophyte up to speed on memory without offering extraneous information. I suspect the AVSI book will age better. The Scientific American book has a fair amount of current events reporting that may be overturned (if some of it hasn’t already been) by subsequent research. The AVSI book was much more easily readable on my Kindle.
I found this book to be interesting and informative—though not without significant flaws. Overall, I’d recommend it for those wanting to learn about the research of recent decades on memory.
Everything we think, do, or say relies upon–or is influenced by–memory, and yet our memories offer a much lower fidelity and more highly corruptible recording than we tend to think. Even those events that lead to “flashbulb” memory (i.e. JFK’s assassination, 9-11 terror attacks, or the 3-11 tsunami in Japan) aren’t remembered particularly well. You may remember where you were and what you were doing in broad brushstrokes, but you probably wouldn’t test well on the actual details of the event. Old memories are constantly over-lain with a corresponding loss of accuracy. This brief introduction explains the basics of how memory works, and—as importantly—how it doesn’t.
The book is part of Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” [AVSI] series, and it follows that approach. It’s under 150 pages, and written for someone looking for a “ground-up” explanation of the subject. It has minimal ancillary material, just a couple of pages of “Further Reading” after the book’s seven chapters. There are a few black-and-white graphics throughout the book, a combination of photos and diagrams.
Chapter 1 introduces the reader to what memory is and what it isn’t. One learns about the three-part process of memory (encoding, storage, and retrieval), an idea which will be important throughout the rest of the book because these stages mirror the structure of memory failures and the means to build a better memory.
Chapter 2 explores the landscape of memory, which is a great deal more complex than the short-term v long-term dichotomy that we all learned in school. There’s working memory, procedural memory, semantic memory, and episodic memory.
In chapter 3, the reader learns about how memories are retrieved or recalled and the immense power of context in the process.
Chapter 4 explains the many ways in which memory fails us from simple forgetting to false or corrupted memories. We learn how being knowledgeable improves our memory, but also how it can lead us into error.
The next chapter advances the same theme by looking at amnesia. While amnesia is one of Hollywood’s favorite plot devices, the subject is generally poorly understood because of the simplified and myth-filled nature of the entertainment form of the affliction. Here you’ll learn what one isn’t seeing in the soap operas.
Chapter 6 is entitled the “The Seven Ages of Man” and it looks at memory over the lifespan, with particular attention to the ends of the spectrum. On one end, why do most of us remember nothing from our first few years—and what we do remember is often quiet suspect (false memories from hearing stories about one’s infancy?) At the other end of the spectrum, we are all well aware of how memory degrades with age—particularly those of us buying and reading books on memory. However, one learns that it’s a great oversimplification. While our episodic (event) memory degrades, some elements of memory are quite robust to aging.
The last chapter discusses what does (and to a small degree, what doesn’t) work with respect to improving one’s memory. As it’s a short chapter in a short book, this should be taken as an outline of the subject. If this is one’s main purpose for seeking out a book on memory, one may want to keep looking.
At this point, I’ve read and reviewed many books in the AVSI series, and I found this one to be typical. It’s not among the most engaging of the titles in the series, but it gets the central concepts across in a way that is readable and soundly organized. Because there’s a lot of definitional and conceptual material to cover, there’s not a lot of room for the narrative approach, which isn’t to say that there aren’t brief descriptions of key cases here and there.
I’d recommend this book for someone wanting an overview of the subject of memory.
This isn’t the wildlife I expected to see on our Kashmiri Great Lakes Trek, but I’ll take what I can get.