by Alison Winter
University of Chicago Press, 2012, 336 pp., $21.69
t is my recollection that after he finished his extraordinary “Organ” or Third Symphony, Camille Saint-Saëns said that he would never achieve anything greater. He felt that he had put everything important to him within this amazing symphony and would not be able to compose more. After reading Memory by Alison Winter, an associate professor in the University of Chicago history department, I wondered whether she might have felt something similar upon finishing this marvelous essay, filled to the brim, as it is, with what she calls, by use of the book’s subtitle, Fragments of a Modern History. Of course, I had to question, first, whether Saint-Saëns had really said any such thing; second, whether my memory of what he said was “authentic”; and third, whether my memory had mutated with time, whether I had unknowingly “reconstructed” it by dint of my changing recall and my knowledge of others’ interpretations of Saint-Saëns’s statement.
These are a few of the questions that make this book the thoughtful tool it is for sharpening the distinctions between what is true and what we reconstruct as true, and for drawing attention to the great difference a discrepancy between the two can make for an individual’s life history, a psychiatrist’s diagnosis, a neuroscientist’s map of memory, or a jury’s decision about the “truth” of a witness’s recalled testimony.
I know of no other book on memory that succeeds so well in weaving together the cognitive sciences, neuroscience, law, history and medicine to tell a story that is as remarkable in the telling as it is in the content. A single sentence in her introduction suffices to memorialize the subtle beauty in Winter’s ability to tell us things of importance about what it is to remember faithfully: “The idea that the arc of a baseball flying through the air from a father to a son is perfectly preserved, decades later, reassures us that the fine texture of a past that made our present is indeed part of the person we have become.” With genuine literary beauty Winter chronicles, probes and reassembles historical episodes about the role of memory in our individual and societal lives across the 20th century, and in so doing, she underscores the profound importance memory holds for us. Indeed, as much as literature and poetry instruct us, it is memory that holds our lives together, giving them meaning and structure long after the experiences within them are past.
But the “fragments” about memory that Winter curates from our last century and updates in the present one do not reassure us that either the story of memory or its scientific description are complete. To the contrary: Like other critical cognitive functions (certainly to include reading and writing) that are the product of nature nurtured by need, human memory changes as the species changes. These changes often flow from cultural inventions and practices, and those inventions and practices often involve technology of one sort or another. Winter shows how cultural inventions—in this case media like film, tape recorders and computers—both change the needs placed on memory in human development, and serve as highly influential metaphors for understanding how memory works in different epochs.
To this remarkable insight Winter adds a second major theme that runs throughout each of the epochs she deals with: Is memory stored inside of us in some very basic way we can authenticate, or is memory constantly shifting, shaped by the ways we reconstruct what we know as we acquire new knowledge and experience? These two recurring themes in Memory provide fascinating leitmotifs from one historically based fragment to another. Hence we get to look in on the process whereby one form of popular media is systematically replaced by another, all the while changing our ideas about how memories are formed and stored.
The clear but stunning suggestion here is that what we remember is influenced by how we remember it. And it seems to follow that if the “how” changes at an accelerating rate—from black-and-white still photography to web-enabled smartphone videos in the blink of an eye—then memory itself has entered a zone of general flux. We are thus brought to a pregnant question: If the ability to read and write changed our need and capacity for some forms of memory, then what will video technology, GPS systems, 3D animation and modeling technology, and mass social media do to us? Is our dramatically enriched capacity to imagine and produce pure fantasy liable to have any impact on the nature of memory?
et one fragment from neuroscience, my own area of professional concentration, bring the varied themes of Memory to life. In the mid-20th century Wilder Penfield of the Montreal Neurological Institute was one of the most famous neurosurgeons in North America because of a technique he had perfected with patients whose seizure activity was so profound that it required radical surgery. He literally lifted the anesthetized top layer of the skullcap off so that he could move a small low-level electrode around the surface of the brain to locate the central site of the seizure activity. He did all this while speaking to the patient. The initial, primary goal of this extraordinary procedure was to use the systematically moved electrode to locate only the seizure-causing areas for surgical removal. Among other intended goals, this “talking” procedure helped preserve the critical language areas of the brain, and indeed appeared to help curtail seizures in about half of the patients.
But the goals of the procedure changed over time for Penfield, as his explorations of different areas of patients’ brains led to the elicitation of a range of behaviors, movements and, most surprising of all, “living memories” of past events. Based on the sum of his stenographer-recorded observations of which cortical areas elicited which behaviors and memories, Penfield believed he had found the basis of a new cartography of human brain function.
Perhaps equally importantly, his electrode-elicited memories seemed to possess all the characteristics of the patient’s initial experience in time, in all its sensory fullness. For example, one patient could relive the experience of hearing an entire orchestral song from start to finish each time the electrode stimulated and re-stimulated the same location. Another could remember his mother telling his brother he had his coat on backwards. Various patients described their activated memories in terms of “motion picture films” where everything in consciousness is present. Winter interprets the compelling influence of Penfield’s accounts, particularly as they were combined with their corresponding media metaphors, as bringing together “the popular with the elite or scientific, the lay with the specialist.”
Among other scientists, however, there was both intensive interest and controversy. The idea that memories could be “found” in completely localized areas ran counter to then emerging work of some of the most important scientists of the mid-20th century. Karl Lashley, for example, attempted to find such localized “memory traces” in rats, only to be completely dissuaded by his evidence that any such localized sites existed. Lashley concluded that memory had to be distributed across the cortical areas.
Perhaps the single most important contributor to the neural basis of behavior, Donald Hebb, worked at the Montreal Neurological Institute around the same time. Hebb developed a very different model of cellular function, one in which groups of cells worked together to form what he called “cell assemblies” that operated on what is now the maxim: “The cells that fire together wire together.” Hebb’s notions were closer to Lashley’s and offered no support for Penfield’s notions of highly localized memory areas. Such lack of support from important psychologists seems barely to have mattered in the larger scheme to Penfield, and members of other disciplines, like psychoanalysis, who saw Penfield’s results as the evidence they had never possessed for their ur-premise that buried memories could be reactivated in full. Winter includes one of the more enthused descriptions of Penfield by analyst Lawrence Kubie, who saw Penfield’s approach as “Proust on the operating table!”
The differentiation of scientific truth from interpretation across time (and across new findings) is one of the major challenges set out in Memory, yet there is no straightforward story with regard to Penfield’s account of memory. Three women who arguably have contributed as much to the complex history of memory research as did Penfield helped contextualize his findings in the decades that followed. In the process they brought to the fore new conceptualizations of memory both to cognitive science and to neuroscience.
Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted work in forensic testimony that illuminated how human beings reconstruct memories that are, at best, lacking in reliability. Based on her own very different perspective on memory, Loftus argued that only 3.5 percent of Penfield’s patients showed the startling patterns of highly localized memory that he made the basis of his approach. Penfield himself put this figure around 15 percent.
Brenda Milner, a neuroscientist who worked beside Penfield throughout the 1950s, is best known for her rigorous chronicling of the dramatic loss of all new memory in H.M., the most famous patient in all neuroscience research on memory. In an operation by neurosurgeon William Scoville, H.M.’s amygdala and hippocampal systems and adjacent areas were removed because of uncontrollable seizure activity. Following this operation, the highly intelligent H.M. was diagnosed with both anterograde and retrograde amnesia: He could form no new memories, and the years preceding the operation were not accessible to him. H.M. was thus locked into a tragically short-lived present.
A recent play in my hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts depicted how MIT’s Suzanne Corkin, another extraordinary contributor to research on memory, would need to introduce herself upon each visit to H.M., who for years would daily and cordially meet her anew. Milner’s and Corkin’s research on H.M. significantly advanced the field of memory, but Milner also helped place Penfield’s clinical research in a different light. She underscored, for example, how Penfield remained one of the few researchers who considered patient responses as part of the process of discovery rather than wholly irrelevant to it. If anything is missing for me in Winter’s account of mid -20th century neuroscience, it is the substantive role that Brenda Milner and Suzanne Corkin played in the history of memory research. Yet it may be the case that, since H.M.’s case has received so much press in the years following H.M.’s death in 2008, Winter decided that Penfield’s work was now the lesser known.
Yet there may be another, more powerful reason for her choice: Penfield’s account, once revered and at least twice deconstructed by alternative explanations and perspectives on memory, is now being revisited through new research conducted at UCLA. A group of patients who were to have surgery for epilepsy had electrodes implanted in the area causing the seizure activity, which for these patients was in the hippocampal area. The patients were shown different, very brief film clips. Not only were specific, individual groups of neurons activated for the specific clips, but after the patients were asked to recall aspect of the clips, the same (read: highly localized) neurons fired in response a few seconds before the patients were aware they were recalling the memory. Winter summarizes this stunning finding as illustrating that the brain appears in some instances at least to “relive” past experiences when we remember them. I cannot repress the thought that Penfield would have been wildly happy about this news.
was made happy, too, by Winter’s finale, which made me recall Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony a second time. There are fireworks in both endings, but more to the point, there is a setting forth of all the themes, subthemes and variations that thread them both together. The two major axes of memory research in this book—whether our memories are “authentic” and highly localized in our brains, or “reconstructed” by us over time through more distributed brain functions by us—provide a structure for viewing the entire pendulum-swinging history of memory research in the 20th century and for projecting what will come of it in the 21st century.
In our own epoch, where omniscient-seeming external search engines retrieve daily for us what we cannot recall from our increasingly underused memories, our culture has become inured to sensations once evoked by the discovery of false memories in patients, witnesses and even ourselves. We understand more about the varied ways memory is constructed, but as Winter suggests, most people still believe that some aspects of memory are fundamentally real at some level. Put another way, most people still believe that the “pictures” we retrieve in memory are what they are without reference to the nature of the cameras that have taken them.
To be sure, a good number of these issues will be resolved when memory research proceeds to describe ever more precisely the specific cognitive requirements of various types of memory, a task that is not appropriate in a book for a general audience. As is well known now, there are considerable differences in the types of memory used for retrieving a word, remembering a name, recalling a traumatic event, learning to ride a bike or tasting the sweetness of a madeleine that evoked an entire cache of childhood memories for Proust. Winter understandably avoids such distinctions that are in a sense the very substance of much current research in the cognitive and neurosciences, but in the long run these more specific distinctions will be necessary to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how different aspects of memory work.
To end with only one such example that spans the last century, William James memorably described what occurs when we cannot remember a single name. His description remains after all these years our signpost for future work. He wrote, in 1892, that we feel a
gap therein: but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction. . . . If wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly definite gap acts immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit into its mould. And the gap of one word does not feel like the gap of another . . . .
Indeed, the closer we come to understanding the true nature of what James calls the “wraith of the name” for every type of memory, the more we will appreciate, I believe, the extraordinary complexity of the brain’s design and our own changing relationship to the surprises still within it.