- Memories Are Made of This: How Memory Works in Humans and Animals
The subtitle of Memories Are Made of This is somewhat misleading and would have more accurately reflected the contents of the book had it run: "Some Theories About How Certain Aspects of Memory Might Work in Humans and Animals." A prominent researcher into the biology of memory, Bourtchouladze starts this book by briefly surveying the various attempts to understand memory throughout Western history, from the ancient Greeks to the birth of modern psychology to present-day techniques involving genetic manipulation and sophisticated scanning.
The author is at her best when setting out this historical narrative, particularly the rise of experimentation in the 19th century and the subsequent classification of distinct kinds of memory, such as accessible and available or recognition and recall, in the 20th. It transpires, for example, that when subjects are shown hundreds of different images in sequence and then asked to pick them out from a second sequence that includes those already shown plus new pictures, they recognize up to 97% of the original images, even though an average subject will recall only 17 to 20 images without any visual reminder (p. 62). The distinction made here is between those memories that are accessible and available, that is, between those that are somehow stored but cannot be remembered without prompting and those that can be voluntarily recalled without prompting.
But having guided us so patiently through this maze of concepts and theories, with excellent account taken of the non-specialist reader, the author jarringly shifts gears in the last 40 or so pages. Bringing us up to date with current research, and particularly her own, Bourtchouladze slips into a rather technical mode of writing, employing a profusion of acronyms and specialist terminology. Although I could not claim to follow with certainty, the gist seems to be that there is an important distinction to be drawn between short-term and long-term memory, each of which is endowed with its own neural mechanism. It is likely that long-term memories are stored as a result of long-term potentiation (LTP), that is, changes in the strength of the synaptic connections between neurons. The author's own contribution to the field has been the study of a gene that when switched off in rodents prevents the production of a certain protein (CREB), which, in turn, prevents the formation of long-term learning whilst apparently leaving short-term memory unaffected.
Fascinating as this all is, I could not help but be disturbed by the indifferent attitude the author displays towards the many monkeys, birds, rodents and other creatures that have variously been electrocuted, lobotomized, terrified, half-drowned, and genetically disfigured in the name of memory research. No doubt this can be justified on the grounds that a cure may result one day for human degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. But at the same time, one wonders about the extent to which such practices are driven by little more than curiosity or, worse, by naked scientific ambition. At least Bourtchouladze acknowledges this aspect of the scientific imperative when she quotes Jim Watson's comment that scientists are "a little evil and very competitive" (p. 165).
Despite the optimistic subtitle, she also recognizes how far we are from a full understanding of the biology of memory processes: "We are beginning to develop some idea about the molecules and genes necessary for memory to be formed, and yet in many ways memory still remains as much of a mystery to us as it was to the ancient Greeks" (p. vii).
For the most part Memories Are Made of This is a highly readable and accessible account of recent research into memory and should serve as a helpful introductory textbook to this important subject for students in a variety of disciplines. [End Page 256]