The Rag And Bone Shop – Veronica O’Keane (Allen Lane 2021)

I was taken in by the subtitle “How We Make Memories and Memories Make Us” as well as the image suggested by the title (which itself is derived from a poem by WB Yeats).  Like most of us, I’m fascinated by the workings of memory and Veronica O’Keane with a full and varied career in neuroscience is an ideal guide.

The book falls soundly between an exploration for the general reader and those who are able to absorb all the science.  I did try really hard to grasp the wonders of brain chemistry and function but there were too many amazing bits of brain doing amazing things.  I could follow the gist but struggled to take it all in, having to go back over bits when I picked up the book again, my memory itself perhaps letting me down.

What is fascinating are the case studies from the author’s career and I also particularly liked her bridging of science with art, especially literature, where she credits some writers, amongst them Samuel Beckett and the oft-cited Proust of finding ways of conveying the workings of memory and memory disorders before science had a chance to explore these gut feelings and turn them into scientific fact.

I also very much liked O’Keane’s ability to get us to grasp concepts with examples from her own life – the “prescient memory”, described broadly as the past merging with the present, depicted here as a succession of visual memories as her son left home to go to college and “meta-consciousness” as the experience of her fondness of year-round sea swimming and that transcendent feeling of being at one with the environment which when reading her description becomes fully comprehended.

It’s not intended as a book to help boost memory but there is a little fillip for those of us well into middle age- knowing that you have forgotten something is itself a form of memory, it is when you start not knowing you have forgotten something that could flag concerns.

If there is a star of the show it is the hippocampus, the mysterious sea-horse shaped part of the brain which, like plastic, is fairly adaptable.  London Taxi drivers who have studied The Knowledge have been found to have larger right side hippocampi because this is where the brain has its memory of place.  The left side is for biographical memory which can shrink when a person is depressed leading to potential amnesia, but it is able to reactivate itself.  I found out a lot about this part of the brain and it was fascinating.

As well as the correct workings there’s plenty of examination of when things go wrong and misfires occur (obviously these are the aspects which teach professionals so much about the brain), there’s the history of neuroscience, what happens to our memories and emotions at different parts of our lives and the whole concept of “false” memories is examined as well as a little look into the future of this relatively recent discipline. 

I think it’s a book with parts that will stay with me, memory-wise, and I may want to revisit certain sections but as a whole it is a little overwhelming but that’s to do with me and a lack of basic scientific education rather than the quality of the work here.

The Rag And Bone Shop is published in the UK by Allen Lane on 4th February 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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