Following his books about the puzzling logic of memory, Douwe Draaisma turns to the miracle of forgetting. He claims that far from being a defect, forgetting is one of memory’s crucial capacities, blended through it like yeast through dough. Our earliest recollections make us starkly aware of the forgotten years that went before. We can retain information only because of our ability to erase it selectively.
Once again Draaisma demonstrates his talent for bringing together literary and scientific sources both elegantly and originally. Novels, films and newspaper articles alternate with insights from psychology, psychiatry, neurology and philosophy. He dismantles persistent clichés, such as the notion that photographs can refresh the memory: ‘A photo needs memories before it can be a real depiction of anything.’ In fact, pictures tend to supplant the real faces of old friends or lost loved ones. As for dreams, Draaisma remarks drily that it cannot be their inscrutability that makes them so easy to forget. ‘If I found myself in the basement with the alluring lady next door in real life, I’d definitely remember it a week later, all the more so since we don’t have a basement.’
Draaisma has an astonishing ability to raise questions that most of us have never stopped to ask and yet immediately recognise as important. Why, for example, do we have techniques for remembering but not for forgetting? Where do repressed memories reside? What happens to our shared memories when those who share them are no longer around? Can impressions of past events really disappear from our brains, or do they simply become inaccessible? What makes a colleague remember your idea but forget that it was yours?
Draaisma runs precisely that risk with Oblivion, a book so full of convincing ideas that you might forget you read them here first.
- Elegant and intelligent eulogy for that undervalued quality of memory: forgetting
- With his usual ease of narration, Draaisma once again forges science, literature and history into a self-evident whole