Book Review: The Memory Illusion -Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory by Julia Shaw


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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was fascinated by Dr Shaw’s work on false memories long before reading her books. When I decided it was time I really did read something of hers, I was distracted by her super book on evil -it just had that delicious “ooh!” factor about it which meant laying aside serious research to read about people’s deviant behaviour (the academic’s equivalent of reading a gossip magazine?). I was surprised to find a book on evil to be so delightful, honest and even fun.

All this looked good then for the main course – her book based on her research where she ‘implanted’ false memories into test subjects. Her work on memory was actually important to me as I was busy writing my own book at the time of reading hers. I refer to ‘The Memory Illusion’ in my ‘Try Not To Laugh’ which is a memory system for students to help them prepare for exams.

What I liked about her work is the way it highlights (although I’m not sure Dr Shaw says this quite so directly) the fact that our brains are built to forget as much as to remember. I’ve been teaching this to students for many years as a vital theory to explain why memorising information is so very difficult. In many ways, trying to memorising things is just like exercising muscles – you have to repeat regularly and build the strength of the memories. Otherwise, the brain ditches most of the sensory information it receives day by day. This, added to the human ability to imagine situations which allows us to conceive of the future and plan, means that parts of our memory of past events and events we have merely imagined can conflate and become one – a false memory!

This is the premise of Dr Shaw’s work, and she went about proving it, holding interviews with volunteers over a period of time and seeing if she could persuade their minds to think an entirely fictitious event had really happened in their past. The results were astonishing as much as they are profoundly disturbing. That our minds can be so easily ‘altered’ in this sense, has important implications for the reliability of witness testimony and could be an explanation for a host of other issues which Dr Shaw discusses thoroughly.

Along the way, she gives short introductions to the working of the brain, memory theory and so on, and delves into a range of subjects including using mnemonics and the validity (or not) of hypnosis. There are times when I wish she’d go further; I think she missed a trick (pun intended) by not looking at the working of magicians in more depth, for instance. Perhaps it is my bias, as some-time conjuror, but our speciality is, in part, about implanting false memories. although she does briefly refer to magicians in chapter two, there she is more thinking about magic as an optical illusion – how do tricks fool our brain when we know they can’t be true. Magic goes further than that though.

Misdirection is the art of convincing someone they need to look at something when actually the ‘move’ is taking place away from their gaze. And I speak with considerable experience when I say that audiences do not remember magic tricks the way they actually happened at all. I love to hear people tell others of the tricks I’ve just shown them. I honestly don’t know how those tricks are done because they ain’t the tricks I just showed! A good magician makes it impossible to retrace the steps of what a spectator has just seen. Their ‘witness testimony’ is flawed. I wish Dr Shaw had gone further with this, but there you go, you can’t have everything and she does the remarkable in covering as much as she does.

My only reservation (for which, as a very personal issue, I won’t reduce the star rating) was that I did find myself triggered by her chapter nine – on childhood sexual abuse. Most of the chapter was okay, insofar as this kind of material I’ve heard before and know it (unfortunately) very well, having counselled far too many people over the years who suffered abuse in their childhood.

But there was one part where Dr Shaw discusses the evidence for ‘abuse denial’ in children – where they will deny any wrongdoing has taken place and evidence for abuse needs to be gleaned from other factors, such as bed-wetting. She concluded “the idea that children often deny abuse when confronted about it is largely a myth.” I know that Dr Shaw takes child abuse extremely seriously and I do not wish to misrepresent her thoughts; nevertheless, I felt this comes dangerously close to saying that children don’t deny abuse when it has happened.

This triggered me because I am, myself, a survivor of childhood abuse and I know full well that I denied, denied and denied again when questioned on this during my breakdown in my teens. Social workers, psychiatrists, occupational therapists and other hospital staff all tried to make me ‘confess’ I had been abused; yet I refused to, for a whole host of reasons which I won’t go into here other than to say that shame was a huge part of it. Decades later, when the man responsible had been caught as a result of another victim seeing him with a child he was molesting, I became a chief witness against him. The child himself, who had led to the investigation, refused to admit any wrongdoing, despite showing all the signs of this man’s previous history. It was the testimony of those of us who were now adults that had the man sentenced to eighteen years.

So child denial does take place, and often. I don’t think Dr Shaw was trying to deny this; she was rightly criticising the scaremongering that was well-documented in the 1980s of hunting down of innocent people who experts became convinced had done wrong. This is a dreadful wrong but, as so often in life, it is possible that in counter-balancing one wrong, another may result. Life is a paradox.

Nevertheless, ‘The Memory Illusion’ is an excellent book. Dr Shaw is a kind-hearted writer who writes honestly of herself and gives no sign of superiority – a trait which plagues too many in the field of psychology. She makes complex and uncomfortable subjects quite understandable, and her writing style is attractive. Books on psychology can often be as dry as sawdust. Dr Shaw’s are a joy. Having gone from merely appreciating her work after I first came across it, to enjoying her book on evil, with ‘The Memory Illusion’ I have to say she is now confirmed as my favourite expert on psychology and I will look forward to buying her next book. Whatever it is on, I am quite certain I will love it.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, will be published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Memory Illusion -Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory by Julia Shaw

  1. It’s an interesting subject, but I forget why. As for psychology books, I try to stay away. What she says about childhood abuse is a blot on her clinical expertise too. Still, if you recommend her…….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I should clarify, I think. The aim of Shaw’s writing about child abuse was to reflect on the abuses of the eighties where innocent people – men mostly – were harassed and even imprisoned because of spurious witch hunts all as a result, not of children declaring abuse, but psychologists reading signs of abuse where there had been none. I’m quite sure that Dr Shaw would not be suggesting that children never hide abuse. I just think that perhaps in this instance she went a little too far in reflecting on the abuses of the past. She’s not a child psychologist so it isn’t her field of expertise and her points about those salem witch hunts were entirely valid. I do certainly recommend her.

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  2. Thank you for this review and recommendation which I am passing along to a psychologist friend.
    Your candid and brave reference to abuse when you were a child triggered a 2nd hand memory of mine. In first grade, a classmate described in emotional detail how she had been abused sexually. I listened in horror, but I’m ashamed to say left in shock as soon as I thought was acceptable. My 6 yr. old mind thinking “no adult could do such a thing… why did she tell me this?”. It has haunted me all these years that I let her down. I hope L. got help from someone better equipped to give her the support she needed. I think of her and hope her life turned out well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you can let yourself go with this one. I’m pretty certain you’d tell no six-year-old that they let a friend down in that way, you shouldn’t do it to yourself. Inevitably, where abuse occurs, it is the failure of many things – and those are always the responsibility of adults. Unfortunately, I know too many instances of young people telling even parents that abuse has occurred and those parents not being able to deal with that and, effectively, ignoring it. Where it turns out uncles or grandfathers are the perpetrators, this is too often the case.

      Liked by 1 person

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