Recommendation: You’ll have to be pretty invested in science to really enjoy this one. At the same time, it does provide new information and the writing is pleasant, so you’re not likely to feel you’ve wasted your time. It’s on the better half of books, and might even be an important read for people who take pride in their ability to remember exact details.
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Pieces of Light is a look into the brain’s ability to recall memories and how it differs from most people’s expectations. Rather than the “snapshot” idea that most people think is how memory works (each memory is like a picture filed away in the brain that needs to be sorted through and found), Fernyhough exposes the most recent findings in the science of memory to show that all memories are actually reconstructions. Using thoughts, impressions, emotionally significant moments, as well as things that we’ve heard from other people, assembling a memory is always a unique development that is influenced by changes in our perspective and countless other factors.
I wouldn’t exactly qualify this book as helpful, but it is certainly enlightening. The reality is that there isn’t much you can do to change the way your memories are processed or put together, regardless of how many times you construct them in your mind. Still, it’s great to understand the mental processes that your brain is undertaking, and realize that memory, like everything else, is completely fallible. In fact, this effect might be heightened for those readers who consider themselves to have very good memories. I’ve always known that memory is not my strong suit, and my natural tendency towards skepticism introduced me to the concept of false memories a long time ago. But if I had stronger convictions towards my memories—if I was really confident that my father had thrown a bobcat on my friend’s lap—this book might have packed an even stronger punch. It’s one thing to be exposed to the science of a concept that you’ve already accepted, another to be given information that makes you rethink certain things you’ve come to believe about yourself.
Fernyhough does a decent job of bringing these ideas to the forefront without making the journey feel like an encyclopedic slog. He splits his time between personal examples, professional examples, and scientific information that keeps things interesting and always reminds you that you’re reading something from a person, not a robot. But his biggest weakness is the inclusion of too many scientific terms. When Fernyhough delves into the science of memory, he really delves and there are a lot of specified terms that start popping up all at once. I certainly understand the desire for concise short-hand, but parts of this book would be better if Fernyhough skipped the terminology and took the extra time to remind his readers of what he’s talking about (though I did get a few chuckles thinking how much the readers had to rely on their memory of terms to fully follow the writing).
Still, things don’t get too far out of hand. You might not remember exactly what Fernyhough means, but you’ll grab his general ideas which, unless you’re planning on entering the field of memory science, is more than enough. Bringing science to the public is a difficult task and Fernyhough still does it better than most. For the scientifically inclined or those confident in their memories, this is a solid book that you won’t regret borrowing or buying.