IPT Book Reviews

Title: Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past 
Editor: Daniel L. Schacter
Publisher: Harvard University Press, ©1995

Harvard University Press
9 Garden St.
Cambridge, MA 02138-9983
(617) 495-2600
$49.95 (c)

The broad ranging intellectual sweep of this book is evident in the title.  Its depth is shown in the fascinating story of how parallel distributing processing was developed.  This concept is persuasively advanced in the book as explaining at least partially how the brain works when memory is distorted.  The computer complex that controlled the first soft landing on the moon used parallel distributing computational techniques.  The equations that are the foundation for parallel distributing were developed by a Ukrainian émigré, Oresa Bedrij, IBM's technical director at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  To discover the equation for parallel processing he prayed and fasted for long periods of time.  He made no effort to generate equations but sat motionless facing a blank wall where the equations eventually appeared.  These equations became the foundation for the landing on the moon, surely in our time the most amazing demonstration of the power of science.  The wonder of human capacity is what undergirds this book.

In 416 pages and six parts, the editor has brought together material that sweeps across the phenomenon of memory distortion from the neurological changes in brain chemicals, shifts in brain structures, to complex neural networks, to the impact of misinformation, coercion, and suggestion, developmental psychology, social contextual reconstruction, collective memory distortion in ancient Egyptians and contemporary students of Watergate, and the nature of science.  The book is an intellectual tour de force, which might be expected from a Harvard University working group on Mind, Brain, and Behavior.  The book is an attempt to reflect the kind of discussion going on between 25 Harvard professors who meet every six weeks to talk about the mind, the brain, and human behavior.  If this book is typical of the discussions, for the first time in my life, I have a nagging wish to have been at Harvard rather than in the Midwest.  The vision of the editor clearly is the root of this engaging structure of progressing from attending to the details of a weakness, memory distortion, to a celebration of human abilities.

Part I includes chapters demonstrating how the research on cognitive factors such as memory encoding, storage, and retrieval are affected by misinformation, suggestions, and the complexity of neurons.  Loftus and her colleagues summarize the ways in which misinformation can alter and distort memory.  The chapter by Ceci also includes research showing that experts cannot reliably discern between accurate and distorted memories.  Part II brings together chapters showing how hypnosis, emotional states, arousal level, and psychopathology are involved in memory distortions.  Parts III and IV review the neurological factors that may be linked to distortion of memory and result in reduced accuracy.  These chapters are written in a style that permits a non-neurologist to understand what they are saying.  This makes it a valuable section for professionals who have an interest in knowing more about the neurological factors but can't go back to graduate school.  Part V contains two chapters setting forth the way in which entire cultures can collectively distort memory and develop inaccurate memories for events that did not happen.  The final section, Part VI, attempts a unifying overview of the simple reality the book sets forth so engagingly — human memory is malleable, fallible, and readily distorted.  The incredible truth, however, is that it is also reliable enough to permit human beings to negotiate relatively successfully the world in which we exist and live.

This book is best read at one sitting in order to get the most out of it.  It is an opportunity to build not only a growing sense of our humanity but a marvelous experience of the wonder of human intellect.  I put the book down with a glowing sense that the human mind can encompass and generate anything at all, even oblivion and nothingness as well as compassion and truth.  The book will do well for anybody intellectually curious and capable of being passionate about ideas.  Fortunately, it will also do well for those who want a series of short chapters that can be read as cogent summaries of important areas of research.

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies, Northfield, Minnesota 55057.

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