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"Why We Remember" | Reviewed by William Winkler

Who would find a way to place a sea lion in an MRI scanner? Charan Rangarath would, and did in the course of his work.

            Dr. Ranganath has been a professor and researcher for more than two decades at the University of California-Davis. Ranganath’s book, “Why We Remember,” is a distillation of his studies, as well as a host of others, into the intricacies of human memory.

The book comprises three parts; the “what, how, and why” of memory creation, retention, and modification.

Part One, “The Fundamentals of Memory,” describes the structure and function of the parts of the brain involved in memory. The story progresses from the earliest days of memory research, based on observations of individuals with brain injury or disease, to the present-day use of sophisticated central nervous system scanning (including sea lions) and computer simulation. Raganath leads the reader into an understanding of the complicated anatomy of the -pound organ enclosed within the human skull.

Part Two, “The Unseen Forces,” discusses the forces, both chemical and electrical, which allow the numerous specialized areas of the brain to communicate with one another. This communication, which is active whether the individual is asleep or awake, results in the brain’s ability to update, refine, or hide individual bits of memory.

Part Three, “The Implications,” details the importance of understanding the complex processes involved in memory dynamics. Psychotherapy, for example, depends on the therapist’s ability to help the patient reshape memory into more constructive forms of thought. Eyewitness accounts of incidents have been shown to be less than reliable, depending on how the questions to the witness are posed and how the witness’s memory generation can be manipulated. These, and other examples, demonstrate the importance of a more complete understanding of how and why memory works.

The topic of memory is complicated and could be daunting for those who are not already somewhat familiar with the subject. Ranganath humanizes his narrative by including fascinating descriptions of the multitude of studies involved in the development of key concepts in memory science.

Readers interested in learning more about what drives humans to think as they think and do as they do will find time with “Why We Remember” well spent.


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