Diving for Seahorses review: Hilde and Ylva Ostby on memory and its vital role

Science
Diving for Seahorses: The Science of Memory
Hilde Ostby & Ylva Ostby
NewSouth, $29.99

Over the past 10 years, the science and significance of sleep has become a major cultural preoccupation. This has been generally a good thing. Most people now understand that sleep is a complex and fascinating part of life that has long been undervalued because, well, most of us slept through it. Children now learn of its benefits alongside lessons about the five food groups. I have heard of small children having their afternoon nap and complaining to the teacher that they didn't think they'd had enough REM.

Diving for Seahorses by Hilde and Ylva Ostby.

Mark my words, the next cab off the rank will be the science and significance of memory, a faculty that, as Hilde and Ylva Ostby point out, bears an important relationship to sleep. Diving for Seahorses is an impressive guide for ordinary readers to an enormously complex and fascinating world. It is underwritten by two beguiling questions. What is distinctive about the human memory? How does it work?

In the first case, the Norwegian Ostby sisters look at the way memory works in elephants (who deserve their reputation) and much more simple creatures. All animals, it appears, have some form of memory, even the benighted goldfish. At the same time, they cite a study that won the Ignoble prize that used the same MRI techniques that are used to study memory signals in the brain in order to prove dead salmon experience compassion, even as they are about to be eaten. There is confusion in the field, just as there was in the early days of REM research. Shysters can argue just about anything. This book is full of fascinating stories and observations but remains reassuringly cautious.

This is a gripping subject. Memory is the basis of all culture. One of the major social movements of recent times has been the ongoing shift from a culture based on memory to one based on retention. Humans remember; computers retain. There is a difference. If you take $20 from an ATM, that little fact will be retained by machines forever and a day and could be used as objective evidence in court in 10 years' time. If you use the $20 to buy flowers for somebody you love, that experience of emotion can only be remembered and would be far more slippery ground on which to stand in a future court. But the memory belongs within a context of meaning that will elude even the most compassionate ATM. As we become more reliant on mechanised forms of retention, our memory atrophies.

Everybody slings off at the idea of learning by rote. But surely being forced to remember is better than being forced to forget. This book makes a powerful case for the connection between memory and the ability to imagine a future: thinking about the past and the future light up the same parts of the brain. Those who are closed to the past are far less able to create ways forward. Perhaps we have long understood this at an intuitive level but it is intriguing to see the scientific evidence. Concerted memory training is as central to human development as sleep. Relying on Google to remember things for us is similar to thinking that we can be productive with four hours sleep. This book shows that one of the casualties of depression is memory. The opposite of remember is dismember.

Nevertheless, one of the features of human memory is its ability to let things go so that we hold onto things that help us and that we need. I had a dear aunt who used to say "the secret of happiness is a bad memory" and she did have a point. The Ostbys consider the case of Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian journalist who had an amazing memory. This can be crippling as those living with PTSD will attest. Adrian Pracon, who survived the massacre at the Norwegian Workers Youth league camp on Utoya in 2011 and then had to live with debilitating memories, helps the authors to sift these issues.

There are other excellent books in this field. Diving for Seahorses refers to Frances Yates' groundbreaking The Art of Memory (1966). There is also Jonathan Spence's The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (1984).

This book gets its name from the hippocampus, two small parts of the brain that are shaped like seahorses, first identified by Dr Julius Caesar Arantius in 1564. The title aptly reflects the book's governing interest in neuro-pathology. The brain remembers. But so too does the body. And even more so does the mind. Memory is not just a series of electrical impulses. Hilde and Ylva Ostby are well aware that they are working close to the core of human identity and that is complex terrain. They are fine guides to a forgotten world.

Michael McGirr is the author of Books that Saved My Life and Snooze: The Lost Art of Sleep, both published by Text.

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