Marking the mind: A history of memory research is a text that complements the numerous books on memory research, from those that provide a comprehensive overview of the field to those that focus on narrow themes (i.e., specific 'forms' of memory). The book represents a thorough report of the history of memory discourse. In it, memory is conceptualized as a 'faculty of the mind'. As such, memory is treated as an individual affair in the sense that it does not refer to a collective phenomenon but rather to a private occurrence, which has intrigued, challenged, and eluded human beings for centuries.
Memory as a private phenomenon is a complex and challenging object to study. One of the reasons is that there appear to be qualitatively different forms of memory (e.g., explicit vs. implicit, semantic vs. episodic, etc.), which may arise from different encoding, storage or retrieval processes, perhaps traceable to separate brain systems. Another reason is that the variety of techniques used to probe memory functioning, from self-observation to behavioral and brain imaging techniques, merely allow inferences of memory operations, inferences whose generality is likely limited to the tasks that subjects perform as memory probes (e.g., recognition, recall, lexical decision, etc.). Similarly, even though brain imagining techniques can provide real-time pictures of activated brain areas while individuals perform memory tasks, localization of memory operations does not automatically translate into an understanding of such operations. Thus not surprisingly, 'memory' remains an ever-lasting puzzle, a puzzle that Kurt Danziger, the author of this remarkable text, wants readers to understand as generated by inquisitive minds asking how our past experiences are preserved and used in our present.
Danziger spotlights the origins of an array of diverse conceptualizations of memory and related investigative probes. The narrative is charming but compact. It engages the reader by revealing not only the evolution of ideas and practices but also the progression of human intentions that motivated such ideas and practices. His modus operandi is simple and effective: it treats intentions, ideas, and practices as if they were objects left in someone's attic, which gradually were brought forward by the shining light of a curious intruder.
The intruder's spotlight is a metaphor: the author dispassionately examines each conceptual product of a complex progression of intentions and procedures. Although centered on the target object, the spotlight captures nearby objects and the instruction manuals that explain their functions. Some of these objects, possibly old artifacts from a foreign land; others, more recent, evoking a feeling of comfort and familiarity; even a few, luster-lost; and many weathered from criticism of new knowledge accumulated through time (e.g., Ebbinghaus's forgetting curve), rest near their manuals. The spotlight, as reminder, brings them slowly to the fore; and in this forefront, each conceptual product falls under examination along with those others that preceded or followed it. Hence, surrounding objects and related manuals become the historical framework upon which the target product can be understood and its current and past values determined.
Regarding attempts to view conceptual products in their historical framework, the present cannot help but affect examination of the past. The spotlight may illuminate some products, others not, and can tilt to reveal or to obscure. The ensuing 'perceptual distortions' inform the way that the present views the past, and, as such, become inevitable byproducts of any examination of the past. The influences of the present on Danziger's narrative content may interest readers, but they are hardly compromising. Readers live in the present and rely upon its frameworks, either involuntarily or intentionally, to understand the products of the past as much as Danziger does.
Clearly, Danziger's narrative remains engaging across the entire text. His writing style, unassuming, sharp, and logical, may prompt the appeal of Marking the mind: A history of memory research. His style becomes particularly evident in the later chapters of the text, those elucidating modern memory research. There, the author's spotlight displays orderly but measured movements. Initially, the light merely clarifies the procedural choices made by a specific memory researcher or group of researchers. Yet upon careful examination, the light penetrates more forcefully. It pierces the conceptual and operational definitions of the 'form' of memory investigated by the researcher(s). Another interesting feature of Danziger's narrative reveals his ability to anchor each conceptual product and methodology to its web of predecessors and successors. As a result, readers receive insights to discriminate between durable and fleeting 'memory' assessments and to evaluate reasons behind survival of any given conceptual product or methodology.
For all the features mentioned above, Marking the mind: A history of memory research is the ideal text not only for history of psychology courses, but also for standard cognitive psychology and neuroscience courses, where the study of memory is imperative. Too frequently, the latter courses hammer students with texts that ensure their readers will understand relationships among research questions, procedures, and results for a large number of empirical examinations. Little attention falls to the conceptual genesis of research questions, procedures, and the extent to which their origins can frame any interpretation of results. Although empirical work is frequently a necessity for assessing the validity of conceptual speculations, often a thorough understanding of such speculations requires that past knowledge and its influence be considered. Hence, Marking the mind: A history of memory research can also enlighten a much broader readership whose interest in understanding memory as a faculty moves well beyond college-level classes. In this respect, readers whose curiosity regarding this subject is selective may find the organizational structure of the book particularly ideal. Indeed, although topics within each chapter appear to follow a chronological design, chapters are ordered thematically, thus offering readers a number of opportunities to select narrative units of personal preference. One exception to this flexibility is Chapter 2, mandatory, solid groundwork for understanding 'memory' as that 'faculty of the mind' which the mind itself has struggled for centuries to understand. Of course, as per all books, certain sections of this text will appeal to its readers more than others. However, the author's skillful writing is certain to generate curiosity in much of his work.
© 2009 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York