I first became interested in reading Hilde and Ylva Østby’s Adventures in Memory: The Science of Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting about a year and a half ago. I was in Durham to visit my friend at the university, my first-ever exploration of the city; all I was told in advance was that it was old, cold, and tiny. Those weren’t inaccurate details – Durham is all of those things – but I recall being struck by how peculiarly structured the main town is, rising up and down over hills and winding cobbled streets, wood and stone weaving together in old homes, a preserved manifestation of some ancient conception of England that has fallen into disrepair elsewhere. It was a Saturday morning in November, which I had to myself while my friend played lacrosse. If you’ve visited Durham then you’ll know the lands of town and country are, effectively, interchangeable, and before long I was traversing farm, field and forest, but before that I sat on a bench, overlooking the River Wear, to catch up on articles on my phone. It was cold, yes, the kind of cold where you could not just feel but see it; the hazy grey, blended with white and yellow sun. Wet leaves lay around my feet. I loaded up my news app and, amidst the scrolling, my eyes fixated on a Guardian feature for a new book about memory The book advertised was, of course, Adventures in Memory, and I made a mental note to buy and read it later on.
Our memory networks – our fishnets of memories – benefit from the context beyond just our physical surroundings. We create the strongest memory networks on our own, when we learn something truly meaningful and make an effort to understand it … Memories are linked to what concerns you, what you feel, what you want.
Anchoring memories in a sensual awareness of time and place is just one of the many common human experiences elaborated upon in the Østby sisters’ excellent book. The literary combination of Ylva, a neuropsychologist, and Hilde, a novelist, is astounding; it is a book about one of the most complex and historically nascent fields of scientific research – our memories – but written in the most accessible and intriguing prose. I found it hard to put down; despite being consistently interested in all things science, I am awful at actually grasping any of it. The wonder of Adventures in Memory is how it is a very complicated book made for the scientific layperson, encompassing people and discoveries across hundreds of years and beyond while never losing its place. It’s exciting, too; the sisters have an approachable writing style that frequently veers into the dramatic and fantastical, most suitable for what is undoubtedly a dramatic and fantastical topic.
Memory is, after all, what makes us human, and the specific evolutions of human memory what sets us apart from Earth’s animal kingdom. We can not only recall events, but we can organise them chronologically, fuse them with emotional, spatial and temporal context, and transport our minds across our lives at the slightest trigger, creating even the most random yet incredible connections. Back at the end of April, the sight of an X-shaped leather vest racked with bullets and weaponry in the pilot to a 1970s-era sitcom Police Squad! threw my brain back to my childhood comic books, The Adventures of Sharkman – swiftly inspiring me to dig out and reinvigorate them for a modern-day superhero radio play.
Memories are not static, not authoritative, not solid as mountains. They are diffuse, they move around, they collide; they are like seahorses dancing restlessly amid the seagrass. Memory is constructive; it picks up fragments of an experience and builds a framework, a story about what happened. Once, that experience was fresh in our minds. But our senses, our attention, our ability to interpret, and our memory did not manage to absorb everything down to the smallest detail.
Memories are of further interest to me as a writer and a keen diarist. I have kept regular diaries since 2017; then, once a day, intermittently throughout 2018 and most of 2019, and then once a day again from October until now. Creative writing, as the Østby’s explain, makes use of memory; the dramatic difference between us and other animals is our ability to conceive of what does not exist, but we can only do that through our ability to fuse our memories together. The Lion-Man is the first known example of human abstract conceptual thought, only possible through respective memories of a lion and a man, brought together into something else entirely. Indeed, what is imagining the future but using memory? Fascinatingly, the writers note that MRI scans prove the exact same cognitive processes are put to work when remembering as they are imagining, and thinking of the future. Past, present and future are one and the same inside our minds – and the wall dividing fiction and reality may not be quite so thick.
Not everything we experienced is real. Not even remotely.
Memory is more like live theatre, where there are constantly new productions of the same pieces.
When we imagine something, the activity in our brains is similar to what it would be when we experience the same thing in real life … A real memory is a form of imagining – an imagined reconstruction.
Some of the most interesting portions of the book are the explorations of false memories, and how prone we actually are to becoming convinced we did things that never happened. Perhaps that’s something innocent, like riding a hot air balloon – or much more sinister, like destroying a car. Though research is ongoing, at present, it’s quite clear that we don’t distinguish between realities as much as we may think, largely because “reality” is actually completely outside of our control. We are merely perceivers and receivers, and every memory in our cognitive arsenals is actually, as they write, an “imagined reconstruction.” If you’re a photographer or a filmmaker reading this, then you might know this particularly acutely. Many of my memories captured on camera are actually of the photograph or video themselves, rather than what I was documenting. In one especially egregious case, there is a video from production of Tales from the Apocalypse, a sci-fi film I wrote and directed, wherein the actors corpse and the camera pans to me breathlessly cackling. But I barely have a recollection of that moment, and I certainly don’t recall the direction of my eyesight and where I stood. Instead, I remember the video, which means my sole memory of the event is actually a memory of seeing myself. This is original memory displaced, and reconstructed through other means; a discussion of the impact which photography and film have had on our memory-making capabilities would have been nice to read in the book, though given the sheer expanse of material covered, one can forgive the writers.
If we can’t imagine something happening, we can’t possibly do our part to make it happen.
From the earliest dissections to the man who couldn’t forget and the man who forgot everything; from engineering new memories in mice to training our minds to remember better and training our minds to forget, all interwoven with meditations on what memories actually matter for and so much more, Adventures in Memory is a phenomenal book. Sometimes, it can be good to put down the political non-fiction and fantastical literature for a dip outside your horizons. Reading this book has undoubtedly changed the way I think about memory and, with that, how I think about a whole lot more. Our memories govern everything; imagine a society with no memory. No capability to recall, no capacity for prediction – just purely living in the present. Or, at the very least, something more akin to many animals, of extremely limited memory linked with spaces and objects but lacking context. Our relationships would be weak, or non-existent; we would have no government or society to speak of, without shared memories to unite us or to give the state legitimacy. We would have no stories. We would, simply, not be human, making it most fitting that Adventures in Memory is the most human book I have read in a very long time. I cannot recommend more.
I believe we’re all pretending to be normal, orderly, and rational, when in reality we’re guided by thoughts, dreams, and wishes we don’t even know we have.