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Review of "Pieces of Light"

By Charles Fernyhough
Harper, 2012
Review by A. P. Bober on Apr 16th 2013
Pieces of Light

Chapter One lays down Fernyhough's journey into the study of autobiographical, long-term memory (autonoetic consciousness [Tulving], p. 15) as a resurgent study spurred by current neuroscience.  "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."  (15)  [Um, well, it occurs to me now on edit, as opposed to experiencing it again from the outside?  See below.]

Chapters Two through Twelve variedly examine memory from personal-experiential, experimental, and depth-psychological points of view.  Memory is said to focus on time, but time without duration between spacial points makes little practical sense.  For example, Two and Five deal with the tendency to walk in circles when lost and the verification of places actually visited or not as when the reports of others fool us into thinking we have been there.  Three raises particularly evocative issue of scents that give rise to memories, as does Eight in addition to locational and neuroimaging aspects.  Nine, as well as Six and Eleven, variously discuss the importance of narrative as a connecting framework, the one substantially about amnesiacs' use of the SenseCam photographically to record ongoing experiences, the others focusing on reconstruction of the past, poignantly with an ongoing memoir by the author's ninety-year-old grandmother enlivened by a visit from a childhood friend.  Four and Ten contrast the freshness of childhood memory with stories of horrific flashbacks freighted with guilt.  Seven is redolent with medieval palimpsest as the author deepens the ongoing theme of construction in memory from sociological, psychological, and philosophical points of view.  Twelve is a kind of reflective summary.

Self-serving, screen, nonbelieved, episodic, fragment, flashbulb memories represent some of the kinds elucidated in the many scientific studies the author summarizes.  He spends much time as well on Proust's madelaine cookie dipped in tea (44).

Due to the frequent reference to experimental results, the text reads more easily for the college-educated audience used to a turgid style, beyond the purely experiential passages.  That scientism will make the eyes of some glaze over except for those particular results that resonate with the reader, as happened to me in the section about the internal grid (30) we have to help us negotiate featureless or new locations as well as in the "scent museum" which engendered a feelingful reminiscence about my first love.

A profound epistemological problem arises regarding real and imaginary memories (135), elsewhere discussed as those mental contents which are internally generated as opposed to those arising from genuine perceptions:  the anterior medial prefrontal cortex "seems to play a major role in 'deciding' whether a particular mental experience was self-generated or came to us from the outside." (140)  So where is the noetic-noematic correlation, anyway?  Do we lean our ear to Locke, Kant, Hume, Husserl . . . or, say, elongate it to Plato's cave or to the cynical views of the sophists, or even those of the skeptics?  Is any "mental experience" ever other than self-generated, the "outside" a mere confused excuse for the twisted mess we make of it.  Similarly (239-242), do we legitimately slash a line between fiction and fact, fiction and non-fiction, when fictus (fingere) and factus (facere) dovetail on the common meaning of making, manufacturing, "constructing," regardless of extended senses of pretending, shaping (like a sculptor) versus doing and making?

Other than this last there is nothing upon which to fault Fernyhough.  His presentation is as many-sided as humanly possible.  Thorough, I guess we'd say, with plenty of bright lifebuoys for us to reach for in an extremely complex sea of study.  The reader profitably complements the experiential, experimental, somewhat depth-psychological, memoirist Fernyhough with the Adlerian, memory-versus-dream, how-to growth monograph of Patrick Estrade, You Are What You Remember (Da Capo, 2008).


© 2013 Anthony P. Bober


A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view. His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields. Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neuroendocrinology.