Memory and Imagination

Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough

This has been my bedside reading for the past couple of weeks. I’ve always been interested in the way Memory and Imagination work together to create.  How the imagination takes all the snippets of things we’ve stored in our brains over the years and weaves them into something completely new.  What I didn’t realise, until I read Charles Fernyhough’s book, Pieces of Light, was just how dependent the memory was on imagination in order to enable us to remember.

It seems that our memories of past events aren’t stored in one place, like a video film, just waiting to be re-run, but in bits and pieces of information in different parts of the brain; smell in one place, sound in another, visual and emotional cues in others.  When we try to remember something that happened to us in the past, our imagination comes into play to reconstruct the memory as a narrative, which explains why people remember things so differently, and memories alter through time - a minor detail when the event took place might acquire real significance later.

In amnesia victims, where the part of the brain that controls imagination is damaged, memory is severely disrupted and ‘forward thinking’ - the ability to speculate about the future - is impossible.

The way we encode our lives in the memory is also interesting - apparently we are all natural story-tellers.  ‘Narrative,’ Fernyhough states, ‘is a key organisational force in autobiographical memory.’  We remember events as stories, pieces of narrative. The author comments in the book, ‘I set out to write about some science, and I ended up by telling a lot of stories’.   It’s the story our brain remembers while the event itself fades.  Our lives become a series of narratives. We seem to have a need to ‘create a coherent narrative about where one has come from’.  But apparently it sacrifices accuracy in order to produce ‘meaning’ - the emotional value of the event is more important than the small detail.

Charles Fernyhough also looks at how, by giving fictional characters rich memory banks, we can make them more authentic for the reader.  He uses Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as an example of this, and discusses the work of W.G. Sebald and how he used memory to give a sense of reality - the texture of memoir - to his novels. Reading them, you are never sure whether this is reminiscence or fiction.  There is ‘a kind of active remembering in which the world and self-hood are continually constructed and reconstructed - from present-day events and from not-quite-intelligible fragments of the past’.

There are some lovely interviews with Charles Fernyhough’s mother Martha, attempting to recall her life in conversations with the author, reconstructing it and discovering new perspectives as she gazes back at it across eight decades. 

I liked the quote from a critic, discussing Proust (you can't really talk about memory without mentioning him): “Like our eyes, our memories must see double; these two images then converge in our minds into a single heightened reality”.  Fernyhough goes on to elaborate: ‘Our two eyes, stereoscopically aligned, allow us to see space; memory allows us to ‘see’ time.  Memories are about what happened then, but they are also about who we are now’.


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