Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell about Our Pasts
Charles Fernyhough
HarperCollins, 2013 ($26.99)

Andy Warhol had an unusual grooming habit. The artist and pop culture icon liked to wear the same cologne for three months, then store the bottle and never use it again. He hoped to associate the scents with events in a certain time period, so that sniffing the bottles later might evoke those memories.

Most of us know from experience how evocative smells can be and how they can make us recall something, often from early childhood. Unlike Warhol, most people make associations unconsciously, and retrieval occurs automatically. Warhol's “scent museum” is one of the many fascinating stories in Pieces of Light, by writer and psychologist Fernyhough.

For Fernyhough, our memories are basically stories. We use them to construct the narratives of our lives and those of loved ones we have lost. Often, however, the tales we tell ourselves do not match reality but are subtly altered every time we recollect them. Here Fernyhough examines his personal stories, stepping back into time to trace the memories he thought were reliable. He seamlessly intersperses the personal aspects of this journey with descriptions of cutting-edge research into spatial navigation and memory manipulation, as well as new ideas about how memory works.

For instance, when Fernyhough revisits Cambridge, England, where he studied in the 1980s, he thinks he will be able to find his way around. Yet he quickly gets lost. He experiences a kind of amnesia in which his mental maps have become blurred over time. He also showcases how unreliable autobiographical memory can be. Fernyhough finds that his memories have been tainted by popular clichés of the famous city.

Although most people think that memory works like a DVD, recording events as they happened, Fernyhough's examples help to clarify that this is not the case. He suggests that memory may have evolved not to recall the past but to help predict the future. In other words, we use fragments of memories to simulate upcoming events to figure out the best course of action.

Throughout, the author uses his remarkable storytelling skills to examine memory, leaving us in no doubt that it is an active, ongoing process, incorporating not only what happened then but also who we are now and who we may become.