Memory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan K. Foster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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.
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