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Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past
Am J Psychiatry 2007;164:981-982. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.164.6.981
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by Douwe Draaisma. Translated by Arnold Pomerans and Erica Pomerans. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006, 288 pp., $28.99, $18.99 (paper).

Douwe Draaisma begins his book about autobiographical memory with a wonderful quote from Dutch novelist/poet, Cees Nooteboom: “Memory is like a dog that lies down where it pleases” (p. 1). This simile applies as well to his oeuvre, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past. Like an amiable, unhurried golden retriever, Professor Draaisma leisurely circles the vast domain of memory research, plods confidently past recent breakthroughs in our neurobiological understandings of memory that have been illuminated by cell biology, molecular biology, and neuroimaging to linger in hollows of history, upon pillows of psychology and philosophy, and in the laden larders of European literature. One might surmise that, as a neuropsychiatrist, this reviewer would not be drawn to or edified by a book about memory in which such contemporary neuroscience pioneers in this realm as Eric Kandel, Larry Squire, Ron Davis, and Endel Tulving are not even mentioned. Despite such omissions, I found the volume to be thought provoking, informative, and idiosyncratically charming.

A Professor of History of Psychology at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, Draaisma defines autobiographical memory as “that part of our memory in which we store our personal experiences….It is the chronicle of our lives, a long record which we consult when someone asks us what our earliest memory is, what the house we lived in looks like, or what was the last book we read” (p. 1). Manifestly, this chronicle comprises one of the seminal foundations upon which all mental health professionals build an understanding of our patients, both in function and dysfunction. Therefore, this consideration merits our careful attention. The author sets out to examine many (although not all) of the key ingredients that comprise autobiographical memory, with the tacit understanding that the super-structure of treatment can be toppled by flaws and fissures in the foundations of our patients’ memories. Although the clinician’s psychodynamic formulation certainly can be enlightened by distortions and inaccuracies in the patient’s recollections, it makes an important difference, for example, whether sexual molestation by a parent during a patient’s childhood did or did not occur—notwithstanding the patient’s “memory” of such.

Professor Draaisma initiates his exploration of autobiographical memory with a rich review of differing perspectives of first memories and varying theories of so-called infantile amnesia—or the nearly-universal absence of memories before ages 3 to 4. True to his professional roots as an historian, the author is at his best when he recounts pithy anecdotes from the lives and writings of famous psychologists, psychiatrists, writers, political figures, musicians, actors, and the like. For example, when making the point about the unreliability of first memories, he tells, in the Swiss developmental psychologist’s own words, the story of Jean Piaget’s vivid first memory:

I was sitting in my pram which my nurse was pushing up the Champs Elysees, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened around me while the nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches, and I can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a short coat and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station. (pp. 23,24)

However, when Piaget was 15, this nurse had a religious conversion, confessed that she had made up the entire story, and returned the watch that had been given to her by Piaget’s family as a reward for her brave defiance.

In addition to the absence of perspectives on memory from the basic sciences, the author gives short-shrift to clinical neuroscientists’ studies of brain lesions that have contributed significantly to our understanding of the diversity of memory functions. Alois Alzheimer and Sergei Korsakoff are mentioned only in passing, the transformational brain stimulation experiments of Wilder Penfield only briefly reviewed, and the exciting contemporary work on extra-cranial deep brain stimulation is not discussed at all. He justifies a nonexperimental, instrument-free approach to his subject with the following “apology” (in the classical sense of the term):

These methods (e.g., brain imaging) define the limits of our field of study. What lies outside is something we prefer not to bother with. It does not fit in to our type of research….By contrast the illusion that time speeds up as you get older is far too protracted a phenomenon: it is not possible to conduct experiments covering the entire scale of a human life. (p. 13)

Rather, Professor Draaisma presents a panoply of case examples of people with rare and extraordinary capacities to remember things or to use their minds and fantastic memories in unusual ways in such areas as mathematics, graphic renderings, music, chess, and the like. Chapters on savants, trauma and memory, deja vu, and other memory-related phenomena are built about such stories. For example, how many of us have heard of Solomon Sherashevsky, as reported by Russian neuropsychologist Aleksandr Lurija, who studied Sherashevsky for 30 years? I had not. When first tested at about age 20, Sherashevsky demonstrated complete and accurate recall for endless successions of words, numbers, figures, and letters. Lurija would create elaborate, detailed, meaningless mathematical equations that covered a large blackboard. After gazing upon these representations for a brief period of time, Lurija’s subject would be able to reproduce, with exactitude, these figures minutes, months, and years later—without appreciable difficulty or effort. Sherashevsky also remembered everywhere he had been and how he got there, remembrances that led to “a mental map in a continually-expanding topographical archive” (p. 68). As so commonly occurs with savants of one sort or another, Sherashevsky’s exceptional mental capacities were accompanied by profound deficits, including a dense synesthesia and concrete thinking. One paradoxical insight about normative memory derived from this remarkable case study was that, as a result of the subject’s flawless memory, he lacked a sense of “the familiar.” Unless he was observing the exact object at a later time, a related object that he happened to encounter appeared entirely new and different. As the author puts it, the “faultless recording of yesterday’s tree or face ensures that today’s tree and face are completely new. For…Sherashevsky everything was new every moment. In short…[he was] like someone without a memory” (p. 71). Thus, we need not be so envious of those exceptional medical students in our preclinical courses with “near-perfect” memories for seemingly meaningless anatomical and biochemical minutiae: there may be evolutionary advantages to our imperfect memories.

So why does life appear to speed up as we get older? This is a perception that most of us who are older than 50 regularly experience—particularly at anniversaries of varying sorts such as birthdays, holidays, weddings, and residency graduations. The author acknowledges that this question, which involves two highly complex and ephemeral concepts—memory and time—cannot be answered with certainty. His approach is subjective and picaresque. Professor Draaisma’s description of the work of French philosopher and psychologist Jean-Marie Guyau (1854-1888), who studied the elements of time in his 1890 book, La genese de L’idee de Temps, also applies to the author’s own approach in this book: “Guyau took his views of time from personal experience rather than from experiments. Perhaps this is precisely what lends his observations so much cogency. There is something compelling about someone who has a seismic sensitivity to his inner life and knows how to find the right words for what, to others, is no more than a quick tremor” (p. 208). Draaisma is an admirable scholar, careful thinker, and fine writer. Even with its deficient attention to the perspectives of contemporary neuroscientists and neuropsychiatrists, his book on autobiographical memory is well worth our time and well worth remembering.




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