pieces of light

Pieces of Light in America: the first week

Pieces of Light was published in the US last Tuesday. Here’s a roundup of what’s happened to the book in its first week of publication.

The book was a PW Pick in the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, meaning that it was picked by the editors as one of the ten best new books of the week:

In this refreshingly social take on a personal experience, psychologist Fernyhough aims to debunk the myth that memory is purely retrospective—memories, he argues, are not “heirloom[s] from the past” summoned back for display in the present; they are momentary reconstructions.

The Huffington Post ran a piece on the cover art, which was designed by Profile’s art director Peter Dyer. Peter says:

The author talks about memory as a collage, coming from lots of different places in the brain. I liked the idea of using silver foil to illuminate some of the dots on the cover design – it gets across the idea that some memories burn really bright in our heads, while others are more blurred. As the book catches the light, the dots either shine or fall back – just like memories at certain points in our lives.

I did a Q&A with Jeff Glor of CBS News, who asked me about the inspiration behind the book, and to whom I confessed about what I might be doing if I wasn’t a writer and academic:

I have a part-time academic post, and I conduct research on topics such as hallucinations and child development as well as memory. If I had to give up all the bookish stuff completely, I’d be trying to make it as a progressive rock guitarist. Yeah, I know.

I was delighted to be chosen as Editors’ Choice (best book of the week) on Apple’s iBookstore, which gave the book this lovely review:

Durham University professor Charles Fernyhough offers an absorbing guidebook to the mysterious terrain of human memory with his second nonfiction work, Pieces of Light. In the tradition of Oliver Sacks’ casually shrewd scientific writing, the book blends dispatches from the frontiers of science with compassionate human anecdotes. Although this exploration never shies away from formidable science and challenging psychological concepts (like contextual “flashbulb memories,” which can be startlingly vivid and completely false), Fernyhough reinforces his lessons with elegant personal memoirs and pop-culture references. (Harry Potter, Princess Diana, and Andy Warhol all make cameos.) For a topic so elusive—discussed in methods that range from the allegorical “crazy woman” to the brain’s mysterious mechanics—Fernyhough’s enthralling narrative delivers gripping insight on the way memories shape our lives.

On Sunday I was interviewed by Rachel Martin for NPR’s Weekend Edition. We talked about early memories, the faulty memories of couples, and quality vs quantity:

Thinking about this book made me realize that remembering more stuff isn’t necessarily better. Being able to recall every card in a pack of playing cards or recall pi to the thousandth decimal place — why? Why would you want to do that? It’s no use to me. For some people it might be important, but it’s no use at all for me. What I would like to do is remember the stuff that I remember better, in more detail, more vividly.

In this new post for my Psychology Today blog, I argue for a multidisciplinary approach to memory:

In all of these inquiries one thing has been clear to me. To understand autobiographical memory in its full richness, you need to get at it from the inside: as a subjective experience, as well as something that can be studied in the psychology or neuroscience lab. You need to ask what having a memory is like, and not be satisfied with purely objective descriptions of the phenomenon.

Finally, I wrote a piece for TIME Ideas about how the distortions of memory reveal a truth about the self:

Bracing as it might be, this new way of thinking about memory does not have to lead to self-doubt. It simply requires that we take our memories with a pinch of salt, and forge new relationships with them. They may be a kind of fiction, but the manner of their making speaks volumes about those who create them. In the Obama-Ahmadinejad study, the researchers found that events were more likely to be falsely recalled if they fit the individual’s political affiliations (conservatives were more likely than liberals to ‘remember’ the Ahmadinejad handshake, for example). Whether the events happened or not, your biases and beliefs shape the kind of memories you form, and thus reveal the kind of person you are.

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