Remember by Lisa Genova

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

People of all ages, on occasion, think their memory has failed them.  We know it is the most complex and important section of the brain.  It gives shape, direction, ability and pleasure to our existence. For each, it is unique, and found deep in the brain in a small, sea-horse-like structure, the hippocampus. There, memories take place. They are ENCODED, CONSOLIDATED, STORED and RETRIEVED.

Its capability to do this is limitless. Whether it is the Japanese engineer, who at 69, could recite the numbers of Pi to 111,700 digits, or the concert pianist who memorises 30,000 notes for a concerto, we cannot but marvel at its function.

Remember not only gives fascinating detail about the hippocampus but has suggestions on how to improve our memories.  Should one park the car in a large shopping centre car park, and forget where, the solution is straightforward.  PAY ATTENTION, by noting reference points or taking a picture on one’s phone.

If the brain stored all its daily data, 57,000 seconds of it, it would suffer overload over time.

It cleverly sifts and discards all that has not had focused attention, mostly during sleep.

We’re advised multi-tasking has its drawbacks. Watching Netflix, using a phone, and chatting to companion on the couch, simultaneously, mean none of these activities has complete attention, so would most likely be forgotten.

Memory varies.

The WORKING memory is in the moment. Advised of a phone number then dialing means the number is soon lost. Some may even need to have it repeated.

In order to RETAIN a memory, repetition must occur. Rote learning is an example. The more complex is difficult to retain and has to be studied intensively.

SPECIAL memories can make a more lasting transfer to the hippocampus.

The brain has three types of LONG-TERM memory, information, skills, and events.

Our birthday is information stored in long term memory as are acquired skills like riding or driving and events such as a child’s birth. All are long remembered.

Muscle memory plays a part in skills memory. Playing an instrument requires countless hours of repetition. Once mastered, that skill becomes unconscious. The concert pianist therefore plays automatically.

SEMANTIC memory is the Wikipedia of the brain. A barista may know more than 50 coffee preferences for regular customers…….

There are experiences that contribute to memory too. SURPRISE events are not readily forgotten.

There is an entertaining illustration of this aspect of memory. If a husband comes home every night at 6.00, that is not surprising. If George Clooney accompanies him in a Ferrari, then that is a genuine surprise! If that continues to occur, however, it no longer is surprising. Only the first time this happened is clearly remembered.

EMOTION, too, helps consolidate lasting memory. Horror experienced on learning of the tsunami in Japan, shooting down of MH 17, are unforgettable memories.

There are FLASHBULB moments that endure too. They are personally shocking, and often are recalled in great detail.

We are reminded that memory is unreliable and Lisa Genova gives examples of this that truly amaze. One person recounted very convincingly, a scene in great detail which did not exist in their experience.

We don’t recall much of early childhood but the years between 15 to 30 are the most remembered.

A mere 100 people in the world have HSAM, which means they recall every day in minute detail from late childhood onwards. Some rejoice in this ’gift’ but most regard it as a curse.

TOT is an experience we all know so well. Tip of Tongue is being unable to recall a name, or word, but it pops up later. It’s a universal experience, more frequent with age!

All memory is flawed because factors such as bias, opinion, imagination and more, alter our reality. A fact that it is essential to bear in mind. It follows that there is no such being as the perfect witness!

In her book, Lisa Genova had presented fascinating, beautifully written chapters on this subject which interests us all. Her style is personal and conversational and her ultimate very sound advice is to ‘chill out’, get enough sleep, and remember that context matters. The continued frenetic bombardment of data, daily, can be distressing even overwhelming. The information in Remember provides an excellent way to manage this and more importantly, appreciate the marvellous tool which we call memory.

Leading experts have given this book an enormous number of accolades, unsurprisingly. They regard it as important and fascinating study of this area of the brain; in it, Lisa Genova has blended her qualities of poet and scientist in a most engaging way.

‘A book you won’t forget’!!!!



by Lisa Genova

Simon and Schuster

ISBN 978 17611 0120 5

$32.99; 258 pages

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