I began my last book with an interview. The subject was my three-year-old daughter, Athena, and I was asking her what she remembered about her babyhood. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t have much to say for herself (apart from offering the detail that ‘It were very sunny’). I was asking her to do something quite difficult: inviting her to travel back into her own past and relive moments of it from the inside. That’s a tall order, cognitively speaking, and so it comes as no surprise that it takes children some time to master the skill.
That encounter with Athena’s memory was one of the most interesting aspects of that project, and it promised a fertile topic for a new non-fiction book. In Pieces of Light: The new science of memory, I have tried to write about the science of autobiographical memory in a way that does justice to the human stories behind it. Our memories are constructions—fictions, of a sort, which nevertheless do a pretty good job of keeping us in touch with the events of our lives. From the first chapter:
I think that if we are really to unpick the mysteries of memory, we need to put the story back into the science. One of my aims in this book is to capture the first-person nature of memory, the rememberer’s capacity to reinhabit the recalled moment and experience it again from the inside. The great memory scientist Endel Tulving called this quality of memory ‘autonoetic consciousness’, and explaining it is one of the biggest challenges for memory researchers. The scientific need for replicable experimental findings has meant that the personal, subjective quality of memory has often been ignored, although this tendency has begun to be redressed in recent years, with a new movement towards exploring the qualitative and the narrative. Memory researchers now spend more time getting to know their participants’ individual stories, whether they concern the beguiling confabulations spun by those whose memory systems have failed them, or the sensually rich ‘first memories’ produced when people are interviewed about their very early childhoods. I want to do the same thing, letting the stories speak for themselves in illustrating the fragile and complex truths of memory.
Pieces of Light is the story of some of those stories. I talk to the very young and the very old, individuals who are still, in middle age, arguing over childhood memories with other members of their family, and people whose ability to remember has been changed by trauma and brain damage. I look at what we can learn about memory by getting lost in space as well as in time, uncover the links between memory and imagination, and find out how a return to a familiar place can unlock memories of people who are lost. It’s been a fascinating journey for me, and I’d love to know what you think of the book that has resulted.
Pieces of Light is published today in the UK by Profile Books. It will be published in the US by HarperCollins in March 2013, and a Spanish translation is already in progress. There have been a couple of early reviews: this one in Nature and this in New Scientist. I was also lucky enough to get some wonderful pre-publication quotes from Daniel Schacter, Elizabeth Loftus, Douwe Draaisma, Jonah Lehrer and David Eagleman.