Pieces of Light is published in the US on 19 March. In the run-up to publication, I have been answering some questions about how the book came about and what I hoped to achieve with it. The questions are from the wonderful Heather Drucker at HarperCollins.
I think I’ve come to realize that the mind is too vast and special a thing to be reduced to numbers. Particularly with a phenomenon like memory, you have to try and get at the experience from the inside, and that means exploring what memories mean to the individual. In my view, the science of human experience has to be multidisciplinary; the insights of artists, philosophers and social scientists can add a huge amount to what we can learn from psychology experiments and neuroimaging.
Q.: How has your work as a fiction writer inspired your interest in memory?
Novelists deal in memory; it’s their seed corn. As a writer of fiction, you have to be interested in the experiences of your characters, and one of the ways writers create vivid characters is by giving them memories. You don’t just get to feel a great novelistic character’s thoughts, emotions, desires, and secrets; you also get to share in their re-experiencing of the past. In the book, I explore the idea that a novelist’s creation of a fictional memory has much in common with how autobiographical memory works in all of us: through the pulling together of different sources of information, and the shaping of those constructions by the needs of the present moment.
Q.: In the first chapter of the book, you return to Sydney, to find locations from your first novel The Auctioneer. Can you explain the role that imagination plays in our memory?
The idea that imagination is intimately linked to memory has a very long pedigree, but current research in psychology and neuroscience is putting a new spin on it. We don’t store memories as complete, immutable representations of the past; rather, we construct them from their constituent parts whenever the need arises. That’s how imagination works too: we take things that we know and we put them together in new ways. This turns out to be a very powerful idea for understanding the quirks of autobiographical memory, and it’s supported by some intriguing new research which seems to show that imagination and memory share common pathways in the brain.
Q.: Quoting Marcel Proust and Andy Warhol, you explore the role of senses in our autobiographical memory. Do things such as smells and music have the power to unlock our memories?
Sensory stimuli can be incredibly effective cues to memory. It’s often assumed that smell is a special case, perhaps because of its direct anatomical connections to the memory systems of the brain, but the picture is more complicated than that. Music may share many of smell’s special powers, and I describe how songs can cue memories in ordinary people but also in the case of one remarkable individual with dense amnesia. I also describe how people with amnesia who benefit from using SenseCam (a small camera worn around the neck) find that lost memories are brought back to consciousness by other kinds of sensory cue: in this case, visual ones.
Q.: Freud once called it the “remarkable amnesia of childhood,” but as you show in PIECES OF LIGHT, there may be many reasons why few people remember much before the age of 4. Why is language so important when it comes to retaining childhood memories? And what other factors play a role in childhood amnesia?
At the present time, we don’t understand childhood amnesia very well. It can’t be a simple matter of brain maturation, as the boundary of childhood amnesia seems to shift as we get older. School-age kids remember much further back into their early years than we adults do. Language is important, I think, because it gives us a way of organizing and making sense of our experience, and more organized and elaborated information sticks better in memory. As far as other factors are concerned, one suggestion is that the ability to construct a narrative is the last piece of the puzzle. Once kids can tell a story, they can start to do autobiographical memory.
Q.: You write about your need to seed the memory of your father in your children who have never met him. How can our memory be tricked into retaining first-person memories for events we have never experienced?
There’s good evidence now that many people are susceptible to the creation of false memories. The reason for this stems from memory’s reconstructive nature. In constructing a memory, we pull together lots of different kinds of information, including—occasionally—some information that shouldn’t be in the memory at all. Experiments have shown that simply imagining an event makes it more likely that you will later falsely ‘remember’ it happening. And social factors are very important in this process. I write about some recent findings that siblings often claim each other’s memories as their own, suggesting that our memories are constantly being reshaped by those around us.
Q.: What do you think the future holds for the treatment of eyewitness testimony?
Memory’s reconstructive nature means that it can be unreliable, and the fallibility of eyewitness testimony in particular has been demonstrated again and again. Things are starting to change in the legal system in recognition of this well-documented fallibility, although there is still some debate about just how this kind of evidence should be treated in court. I expect to see jurors and those working in the legal professions getting more training in how and particularly why, memory is unreliable.
Q.: What new research is being explored in terms of memory manipulation for sufferers of PTSD and other trauma victims?
I talked at length with one victim of trauma who had benefited from EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which involves a very simple procedure of watching a light move from side to side as you try to recall the traumatic events. No one really understands how EMDR works, and many are skeptical about its efficacy. Neuroscientists are also working towards targeting specific emotional memories in the brain, through injecting proteins that block memory formation, and they’ve had some success in experiments with mice. The trouble is, human memory is a much more complex process, with many different neural and cognitive systems involved. Despite the recent hype, my own view is that a ‘forgetting pill’ is still a long way off.
Q.: In the book, you write, “memories are constructions, made in the present moment; they are not direct lines to the events themselves.” This idea of reconstructive memory is one that is widely accepted by science, but little understood by the public. What new understanding do you hope readers will gain from PIECES OF LIGHT?
People do understand that memory can be unreliable, but they don’t always understand how and why it’s unreliable. If you ask large samples of people whether, say, memory works like a video camera, you find that most say that it does. I hope that people will enjoy reading about this fascinating area of research, and appreciate why I’ve tried to bring it back to human stories. It’s not just about the brain: it’s about the person, their past, their social and cultural contexts—all the different ways they make meaning of their experiences. Some people have told me that reading this book has given them a different relationship to their own memory. It’s one of the most extraordinary abilities we have, and knowing more about its powers and shortcomings can help us appreciate it even more.