“What exactly is memory?” ask two Norwegian sibling sisters, journalist and historian of ideas Hilde Østby and neuroscientist Ylva Østby. With playful intelligence they offer an illuminating look at one of our most fascinating faculties. Read more about the two Norwegian Sisters’ Adventures in Memory
Their book, “Diving for Seahorses” poses the question: “If our cells constantly turn over, what are we?” Diving into memory can be a risky business, at the same time opening a treasure trove and Pandora’s box. If our physical matter being temporary, maybe “we are our memories”?
Two Norwegian Sisters’ Adventures in Memory
This wide-ranging book is about how we remember past experiences and so also can predict the likelihood of future events, pairing findings from neuroscience research with insights from literature, psychology, history, anthropology, architecture, mythology, and more.
The seahorses the Ostby sisters want us to take is diving for memories, and if you are going to take the plunge, having this pair for guides is about as good as it gets. The book is nothing about what seahorses remember, but instead a lot about the hippocampal gyri, a paired, deeply buried structure of rolled-up cortex in the vertebrate brain. Each hippocampus, which actually looks not so much like a seahorse, but more like a tapering sausage, acts together with adjacent cortical areas to drive the consolidation of experiences into memory traces.
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What is memory?
Memory is so much more than the physiological processes within and between neurons in the brain. It concerns all of us, and makes an impact on—and is impacted by—all aspects of culture and society. Sounds complicated? Yes, but the book is beautiful to read with lush, descriptive detail of scenes, people and even the neural processes of both contemporary and historical memory research, which activate the reader’s imagination – and with it their memory too.
Vivid examples tell us why memory matters. We were also fascinated by the collective memory of human civilization—the history books and literature that allow us to learn from our shared past. Episodic and context-specific memories rely on a level of sensory and emotional stimuli to be prioritized in our personal archives.
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Interviews with fascinating characters
The book contains interviews with some fascinating characters, including people with extraordinary memories as well as those with extraordinary problems remembering, and so, the book itself becomes a memory experiment: the Ostby sisters’ imaginative writing delivers information in a way that makes you more likely to be able to draw on their book’s material about how and why your brain is responding, shaping, retaining and forgetting information.
The book also raises an ever-actual question, how can we live with traumatic memories and integrate them into our lives, without being crushed by them? The next time a memory attacks or protects you, a friend, or even broader society (through the shared memory that is history), perhaps you’ll have a profoundly enhanced grasp of why.
Scientific as well as entertaining
We are given a fascinating, if brief and somewhat eclectic, account of how the hippocampus works and connects to brain-wide networks, but the writers are more at home with the psychological aspects of memory.
Remembering gives us a sense of being in control and on top of things, but for most of us, this is an illusion. Some memories come back to us transformed—perhaps even better than before. In his book Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust argues, “We fear the loss of control that comes with forgetting, but most of us don’t even know what it is that we can no longer remember.”
Filled with cutting-edge research and nimble storytelling, Adventures in Memory: The Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting is a charming—and memorable—adventure through human memory.
Norwegian Sisters’ Adventures in Memory, reviewed by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top): The Østby sisters photo by Anna Julia Granberg