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Memory: Fragments of a Modern History

Picture your twenty-first birthday. Did you have a party? If this is the case, do you take into account that who used to be there? Now step back: how clear are those memories? Will have to we consider them to be accurate, or is there a chance that you’re remembering incorrectly? And where have the many details you’ll be able to no longer recall gone? Are they hidden somewhere in your brain, or are they gone without end?

Such questions have fascinated scientists for hundreds of years, and, as Alison Winter shows in Memory: Fragments of a Modern History, the answers have changed dramatically in just the past century. Tracing the cultural and scientific history of our understanding of memory, Winter explores early metaphors that likened memory to a filing cabinet; later, she shows, that cabinet used to be replaced by the image of a reel of film, ever to be had for playback. That model, too, used to be eventually superseded, replaced by the current understanding of memory as the result of an extremely complicated, brain-wide web of cells and systems that together assemble our pasts. Winter introduces us to innovative scientists and sensationalistic seekers, and, drawing on evidence ranging from scientific papers to diaries to movies, explores the way that new understandings from the laboratory have seeped out into psychiatrists’ offices, courtrooms, and the culture at large. Along the way, she investigates the sensational battles over the validity of repressed memories that raged through the 1980s and shows us how changes in technology—such as the emergence of recording devices and computers—have time and again altered the way we conceptualize, and even try to study, the ways we take into account that.

Packed with fascinating details and curious episodes from the convoluted history of memory science, Memory is a book you can take into account that long after you close its cover.

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