Great Book on Memory

memorybookI just finished reading Memory: Fragments of Modern History by Alison Winter. Simply, its a great book. My only problem was that I spent most of yesterday reading it when I had other stuff to do. I read about the book yesterday morning from a TLS review by Jonathan Sutton. In this web era, I read the review yesterday morning, bought the kindle book for about $5 a few minutes later and started reading within minutes. As noted, my day was redirected.

Sutton’s review is mixed and, I think, grossly unfair. “Memory” is about 250 pages long. A serious, complete, encyclopedic treatise on memory would be 10s of thousands of pages (I have one such book: Encyclopedia of Memory. Unreadable). What Alison Winter does, and what she says she is going to do, is take a few jumping off points and proceed. While these are clearly linked, they can be read as independent essays. I loved two of the topics (Penfield and Bartlett) and liked the rest. This is not because these two are better, but because I’m just not as interested in PTSD or childhood sexual abuse.

Some of the major themes:

memory: a picture-like trace or a construction? The ideas and history of this topic is woven throughout and beautifully presented.

historical concepts of memory using media as metaphor. When we speak of memory we all, sort of, have a shared conception of what we’re talking about. We also have the sense that if we were to speak with, say, Thomas Jefferson, we’d be using the same words. But maybe not. Jefferson had never seen a photograph or a movie. These snapshots or moving picture conceptions may not have been his concept of memory. Although paintings have been around through the ages, there are not many action shots in ancient artwork. Did the ancients have concepts of freeze-fame memory? If not, whose closer to the mark, them or us? Ms Winter deals with the concept of memory in the 20th century and introduces ideas of how early cinematographers were dealing with the question and the lessons they learned.hipp index 3

Important historical figures: Penfield, Bartlett, Kubie (yes!!!). Great, insightful profiles of important people in intellectual history. I think I liked Bartlett the best (sorry uncle L).

One additional note. A figure in the book is Penfield’s napkin sketch of memory. Although wrong on the permanent recording aspect, probably right in the middle, where the hippocampus acts like a look-up table (index)

Coverage of Penfield was fascinating. For example, Penfield believed that memories were permanantly recorded in the brain and he was able to release the stored record with gentle stimulation deep in the temporal lobe.

Below is a video of Penfield saying that memories are permanently recorded. From “Gateways to the Mind”, a Bell Television show in 1958. (I believe the director was Frank Capra; nifty 1950s effects; Bell labs production of high-quality science TV is another reason to mourn the passing of Bell labs).

In short, a really really good book. Get it. Read it.


6 thoughts on “Great Book on Memory

  1. This notion of the hippocampus as a look up table is quite interesting. I’d love to discuss more on this. What strikes me is the fact that there are two major functioning states of the hippocampus. Theta, which i would associate with on line processing (what just happened, ia happening and what is about to happen) and delta/LIA: what happened a long time ago/ what would happen if i did this”. Do you think it’s nuts?

  2. Fascinating that Penfield thought the brain recorded a verbatim record of all conscious thought – imagine the capacity that would be needed. I fear the reality is quite the opposite, we remember very little and what we perceive in our memories is reconstructed and filled in much like the optic blind spot.

  3. Download here: Bókkon I. Creative Information article. 2003 Journal of Biological Systems. 1: 1-17


    There are thousands of experiments in the world of science, but we do not have a uniform system, in which different results from the divergent development of science, as well as from our entire world can be connected to each other in a wholistic way. If divergence predominated over convergence, it would favor destructive and self-disastrous processes. Besides, it is indisputable that such a complex theory must involve the matter of consciousness and of the subconscious, as well as laws of physics, similarly to the concept presented here. According to Neumann’s reasoning, and because the brain does not use the language of mathematics, any complex theory should think in terms of tendencies and processes instead of formulas. Therefore, the complex theory described in this paper works in processes. In the first part of this article a possible role of the brain’s biopiezoelectric crystals is shown as they could take part in the process of storage of conscious information in a holographic way in the brain. The second part describes a concept of quantum vacuum theory of the unconscious implicit background (subconscious) and its connection with consciousness. In the third part, the global role of virtual particles (scalar waves) in the processes of the brain and in the material world is raised.

  4. Pingback: Gageways to the mind – penfield

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