Science Book a Day Interviews Charles Fernyhough

charles-fernyhoughSpecial thanks to Charles Fernyhough for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory

I was born in Chelmsford, Essex, in 1968, and educated at Brentwood School, Essex, and Queens’ College, Cambridge, where I read Natural Sciences. I returned to Cambridge to study for a PhD in Developmental Psychology, which I was awarded in 1995. My writing has been published in several anthologies, including New Writing 11 and New Writing 14, and my books have been translated into eleven languages. My awards include a Time to Write Award from the Northern Writers’ Awards and an Arts Council of England Grant for the Arts. – From Charles’ Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for writing this book?

I’ve always been fascinated by the slippery charms of memory. In my first non-fiction book, The Baby in the Mirror, I wanted to develop a narrative non-fiction voice for writing about science. That seemed ideally suited to a topic that is so much about storytelling.

#2 – What are the main ways that our understanding memory have changed?

We have very good evidence now that memory is reconstructive rather than reproductive. We don’t recall events so much as rebuild them on the basis of lots of different kinds of information. That idea has been around for a while now, although we are getting a much clearer understanding of how it works neuroscientifically, thanks to new imaging techniques. Some of the most interesting new research concerns the evolutionary purpose of memory – it’s arguably as much as about predicting the future as it is about recalling the past – and its social dimensions.

#3 – Your book is full of examples of memory going awry. How did you compile these examples?

There were certain key topics I wanted to cover: memory in childhood and old age, memory for trauma, amnesia. It seemed to make sense to do this by telling stories, rather than going for a standard textbook treatment. I thought that a typical topic-based approach would be boring, so I decided to let my interviewees speak.

#4 – Reviews have complimented your style of writing. What was your thinking/philosophy about the way you communicated the science of memory in your book?

There’s some great science writing about, but it can be a bit samey. There’s room for different approaches for writing about science that are still true to the scientific process and its outcomes. This was just my attempt to write about the topic in a form that I would actually want to read. Especially with this topic, it was essential to try to tell about the experience from the inside, which meant talking to real people and hearing their stories, and looking into my own memory.

#5 – Are you working on a new project/book that you can tell us about?

I’m writing next about the voices in our heads: the typical and the atypical ones. I have a busy year of writing ahead of me.

[Image Credit: Ben Gilbert/Wellcome Images ]


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