Friday, April 5, 2013

Charles Fernyhough's "Pieces of Light"

Charles Fernyhough is an award-winning writer and psychologist. His book A Thousand Days of Wonder: A Scientist's Chronicle of His Daughter's Developing Mind was a Parade magazine pick of the week and has been translated into seven languages. The author of two novels, The Auctioneer and A Box of Birds, Fernyhough has written for the Guardian, the Financial Times, and the Sunday Telegraph; contributes to public radio's Radiolab; blogs for Psychology Today; and is a Reader in Psychology at Durham University, UK.

Fernyhough applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts, and reported the following:
Pieces of Light is a book about the science and stories of autobiographical memory. Many of us are still wedded to a view of memories as faithful representations of past events (for example, around half of people surveyed will wrongly liken memory to a video camera). I wanted to explore the new scientific consensus that memories are reconstructions, created in the present moment and shaped by who we are now. On page 99, I am about to indulge in that time-honored practice of psychologists experimenting on their own children. My father passed away some years before my kids were born, and I wanted them to have memories of him: not just factual knowledge, but real memories, in which they could picture him and hear his voice. There is plenty of scientific research to support the idea that it is possible to have vivid ‘memories’ of events that never actually happened or that you never genuinely experienced. Scientists understand these phenomena in terms of the brain stitching together many different kinds of information, some of which does not properly belong in the memory at all. If memories are reconstructions rather than literal records, I reasoned, it should be possible to give my kids the materials for making a memory of their grandfather, even though they never met him.

Ethically, of course, this is terribly problematic. What right do I have to try to ‘implant’ memories that my kids don’t genuinely have? I would argue that we are up to this kind of trick all the time. Parents are constantly making decisions, consciously or unconsciously, that will shape their children’s memories. Simply electing to take the video camera with you one day and not another; choosing what to talk about and what to cover up with silence: we are sculpting our children’s narratives of the past all the time, whether we mean to or not. And adults do the same with each other. I discuss some research that shows that adult siblings often claim another sibling’s memory as their own (often to portray themselves in a particularly good light). Just by talking about the past, we are constantly shaping each other’s take on it.

From page 99:
‘What did Grandad Philip always say?’

Isaac is doing some online shopping. He has some leftover holiday money to put towards a new game for the Wii, and I am trying to help him to work out whether, with a couple of weeks of pocket money thrown in, it will be enough.

‘Do I want it?’ His big sister starts enumerating criteria on a thumb and two fingers. ‘Do I need it? Can I afford it?’

I’m not sure that my dad always satisfied these three conditions when he went shopping. But his rule for parting with cash has become part of the children’s own decision-making processes. It is one of the mantras they know him by. He died more than a decade ago, too soon to get to know any of his grandchildren: Athena and Isaac, and their cousins Lucy and Annabel. As time has gone on, I have wondered more and more about how the children are to know him, how I myself should talk about him, and the rights and wrongs of negotiating the memory of someone who is no longer here.

Our memory of him is not a particularly visual one. We don’t spend a lot of time, as a family, going through photographs, and Dad died before digital pictures and video became ubiquitous. Talking to the children about Grandad Philip’s funny pronouncements means that he becomes more real for them than a photographic image. It allows the kids to own a bit of him, to incorporate him into their way of looking at the world. The stories of his outraged behaviour in restaurants and hotels, his subtle ploys for getting a drink when he needed one, have become real for the children, too. I want to say that they remember this affectionate, vulnerable, opinionated man, even though their stays on the planet did not overlap.
Learn more about the book and author at Charles Fernyhough's website.

--Marshal Zeringue