Health - Medicine - Non-Fiction

Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold on to What Matters by Charan Ranganath

Memory is essential to both reading and writing; otherwise, every new page in a text would seem disconnected, a sample of words that neither advances nor changes what went before. It’s also fundamental to our identity. To a large extent, memories make us who we are. Those who see friends or relatives descend into dementia often say, sadly, “They’re not the same person anymore.”  Relating to this point, actress Joan Crawford once said, “I guess part of us is made up of our memories; even the memories we don’t remember we remember.”

“It’s fascinating to read a whole book about memory.”

It’s fascinating to read a whole book about memory. Why We Remember is the user manual we need for our own memory systems. Charan Ranganath, now a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, has researched many aspects of memory over his career. Fortunately for the general reader, he’s an engaging writer, able to explain in clear language the technical parts, such as the parts of the brain essential to learning and remembering. He leavens the science with amusing anecdotes about his attempts at surfing and paddleboarding, and the punk band he once played in, or his current band of musical neurologists, Pavlov’s Dogz. The chapter titles are taken from song lyrics. 

As I started reading the book, I was trying to recall a passage from one of my favourite authors, Jorge Luis Borges, who was fascinated by doubles, mirrors, and labyrinths. All of these can serve as symbols of memory.  In fact, neurologists sometimes cite Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious,” about a man who could recall in full detail everything he had experienced. It seemed to me that Borges also wrote somewhere that, when recalling something, he was afraid he was accessing the last version he recalled, rather than the original event. I couldn’t find the quote to check (forgot which book it was in!), but I did come across this in Why We Remember:  “Each time we revisit the past in our minds, we bring with us information from the present that can subtly…alter the content of our memories. Consequently, every time we recall an experience, what we remember is suffused with the residue of the last time we remembered it.” 

He discusses major discoveries and theories in the development of the science of memory, which includes the science of forgetting.  This is followed by a survey of how memory is being researched lately. For example, a collaborator of the author created a computer program that faithfully mimics the operations of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is key to forming and preserving long-term memories, often in collaboration with the prefrontal cortex. Using this virtual hippocampus, many theories about memory can be tested quickly. Ranganath also makes it clear the memory-related areas of the brain are an “ecosystem”; changes in one part affect the operation of the others.

There are many interesting and sometimes fascinating nuggets of information here.  For example, our memory of an event is closely tied to its context. Those unable to recall much about a past event often do better when they revisit the place where it happened. Another interesting point is that research on brains during deep sleep shows that they are busy processing and sorting through recent memories from the day. Naps actually help our memories by allowing a brief version of this process. Those who work in education will find his comments about teaching and learning intriguing, too; he mentions research that indicates frequent testing helps students recall content much better than “cramming” or re-reading the text and notes alone. He mentions people with prodigious memories, some of whom compete in an annual “memory sport” event, trying to outdo competitors in remembering random lists of words, or numbers, or the order of playing cards in several decks, all the while being timed. 

Can memories be manipulated by others, even entirely false recollections? Ranganath notes that an experiment showed people may have a detail change in a memory when offered by a trusted friend or relative.  However, it is rare to have someone accept a completely fabricated memory. I could go on, but (you knew this was coming) there are parts of this book that I have already forgotten, so I plan to re-read it soon.

The only criticism I’ll make of this valuable tome is that, although it offers extensive notes on the chapters and a sizable bibliography, there is no index.  One would have been helpful as I tried to recall where in the book I had read a certain passage.


About the Author

CHARAN RANGANATH is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and director of the Dynamic Memory Lab at the University of California at Davis. For over 25 years, Dr. Ranganath has studied the mechanisms in the brain that allow us to remember past events, using brain imaging techniques, computational modelling and studies of patients with memory disorders. He lives in Davis, California.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Doubleday Canada (Feb. 20 2024)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 304 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0385675682
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0385675680

John Oughton first lived in Guelph, Ont. After sojourns in Iraq, Egypt, and Japan, he now resides in Toronto's Beaches area. He studied literature at York University and completed two non-credit summer sessions at Naropa U.'s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Col., where he was a research assistant to Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. He has published close to 500 articles, reviews, blogs, interviews, and six poetry collections, the most recent being The Universe and All That (Ekstasis Editions). He has also written a mystery novel, Death by Triangulation; and Higher Teaching: A Handbook for New Postsecondary Faculty. John retired as a Professor of Learning and Teaching from Centennial College.   His current pursuits include guitar, photography, and kayaking.

John Oughton

John Oughton first lived in Guelph, Ont. After sojourns in Iraq, Egypt, and Japan, he now resides in Toronto's Beaches area. He studied literature at York University and completed two non-credit summer sessions at Naropa U.'s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Col., where he was a research assistant to Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. He has published close to 500 articles, reviews, blogs, interviews, and six poetry collections, the most recent being The Universe and All That (Ekstasis Editions). He has also written a mystery novel, Death by Triangulation; and Higher Teaching: A Handbook for New Postsecondary Faculty. John retired as a Professor of Learning and Teaching from Centennial College.   His current pursuits include guitar, photography, and kayaking.