IPT Book Reviews


Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the Past   Positive Review  Positive Review

Author: Daniel L. Schacter
Publisher: BasicBooks, ©1996

10 East 53rd Street
New York, NY 10022-5299
(212) 207-7057
$27.00 (c)

In 398 pages, Daniel Schacter, an outstanding memory researcher, reports on what we know of memories. We may change our understanding of recovered memories, false memories, amnesia, and Alzheimer's disease after reading this book. The 35-page bibliography at the end lists many of Schacter's earlier writings.

In the introduction, Schacter refers to "memory's fragile power" and observes that without memory, our sense of personal identity and sel£awareness is stripped away. At the same time, as we go through our day, we are barely aware that almost everything we do is dependent upon the smooth and efficient operation of our memory. But, despite the virtually perfect operation of highly complex memory retrieval systems that allow us to perform continual feats of memory, memory's reputation has been tarnished lately by reports of false memories of sexual abuse and alien abduction.

In this book, Schacter addresses the questions of the nature of memory, how it operates, and its accuracy and reliability. He notes that trying to understand memory's fragile power is not just an exercise in intellectual curiosity-it is essential for understanding some of the most compelling issues of our times. He observes that we possess more than one memory system and describes how new research on brain imaging permits us to see the parts of the brain that must interact to enable us to encode or retrieve a memory. He combines memory research with fascinating clinical examples and firsthand accounts by patients and the book is very readable. Readers will be especially interested in Chapter 9, titled, "Memory Wars: Seeking Truth in the Line of Fire," and Chapter 8, titled, "Islands in the Fog: Psychogenic Amnesia." He concludes regarding the controversy over recovered memories of sexual trauma:

My reading of the evidence concerning memory for sexual trauma points toward three conclusions. First, there is no question that some survivors of childhood sexual abuse forget about single abusive incidents, and some evidence that they may forget multiple episodes of abuse. This forgetting is most likely attributable to some combination of normal processes of memory decay and interference, conscious suppression and lack of rehearsal, and perhaps physiological changes caused by sexual abuse. Second, there is of yet little or no scientifically credible evidence that people who have suffered years of violent or horrific abuse after the years of infancy and early childhood can immediately and indefinitely forget about the abuse. If convincing evidence of this kind does surface, I believe it will occur in the context of a dissociative disorder. Third, the idea that forgetting in abuse survivors is caused by a special repression mechanism-something more powerful than conscious suppression-is still without a scientific basis (pp.263-264).

The book presents an excellent overview of the issues and should be owned by all libraries and read by all mental health professionals who serve as expert witnesses.

Reviewed by LeRoy G. Schultz, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, West Virginia University.

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