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The Brain, the Mind, and the Past

by Daniel Schacter

Pub Date: June 19th, 1996
ISBN: 0-465-02502-1
Publisher: Basic

 This long but never dull synthesis of research on memory from the late 19th century to the present provides a host of interesting facts and insights into how our recollections are formed, maintained, retrieved, and sometimes distorted or forgotten. Personal memories, both conscious and unconscious, greatly influence our actions, habits, and values. Yet what exactly is memory? A professor of psychology at Harvard, Schacter skillfully bridges the disciplines of cognitive neuroscience and psychology in summarizing the neurological, hormonal, and emotional bases of memory. He also clearly distinguishes among several kinds of recollections, including semantic (cognitive) and procedural (task- oriented), as well as field versus observer (in the former, one is part of the recollected scene; in the latter, one isn't). Schacter is also very informative on pseudo-memories, noting the susceptibility of many young children to suggestive questioning and of some adults to hypnosis; psychogenic, or trauma-induced, amnesia; the recurrent intrusive memories found in post-traumatic stress disorder; the controversy between believers in and critics of ``recovered memory'' (memories, usually of sexual abuse, retrieved through hypnosis or other therapeutic techniques); and myths and realities concerning how aging affects memory. Schacter repeatedly notes how fragile memory is: It hardly provides a camcorder-like reflection of the past. Concerning flashbacks of a traumatic event, for example, he writes that ``[their] content may say more about what a person believes or fears than about what actually happened.'' His narrative style is superb, balancing clear scientific journalism with interesting anecdotal material. Contemporary art focusing on the themes of memory and forgetting provides a vivid counterpoint. In short, a highly readable, intellectually rich, and altogether memorable work.