2016, Movies

The Memory Illusion (2016) by Julia Shaw

This is an extremely accessible and thought-provoking tour through all the ways in which the human memory is not as reliable as we all believe. Though, like many of these books, it does contain a bit of a Greatest Hits of psychological studies and cognitive biases, the focus on memory is usually clear enough to make it worth your time even if you’ve read a lot of these types of books before.

For me, the clearest and most significant takeaway is how our unreliable memories lead to so many other issues. It does feel like so many of our cognitive biases could derive, at least in part, from our faulty memory. That is not something that Shaw explores enough for my tastes, but there’s still plenty here to let your mind run wild about it. It’s possible that, rather than learning about cognitive biases as kids (something that should happen but normally doesn’t) we should maybe just learn about how bad we are at remembering things accurately.

The book is full of neat little tidbits and the odd good anecdote. If you’ve read more than your share of these pop psychology books, at least some of them will be familiar, but Shaw is usually an engaging enough writer for this not to be a problem.

Also, Shaw goes to great lengths to mention that most of the studies she cites are making claims rather than proving things. More than perhaps any other pop psychology author I’ve read, she tries to make it clear that this isn’t settled. She should be commended for that. It’s an extremely important point given the Replicability Crisis.

Honestly, perhaps the biggest asset of this book is also its biggest drawback for me personally: this is about as accessible as pop psychology gets, to the point at which it occasionally feels as though Shaw is writing for someone who isn’t even a first year Intro to Psych student, but just someone who has a bit of hard time wrapping their heads around anything (or using the internet to look up an acronym). As someone who reads psychology for fun, and who used to read philosophy for fun, occasionally I find it too dumbed down. But I really shouldn’t be so snobby. If you’re put off by pop psychology, this is a great book to start with.

My bigger criticism is how surface-level it all is. I really wish she did go deeper into the potential for unreliable memory as explanatory concept for cognitive biases or irrationality or cruelty or…well, there’s just lots of unexplored potential here. Sure, that’s likely in part due to a lack of science on these issues, but a little more philosophy would have made the book a little more valuable for me personally.

Still, a pretty good summary of frailties of the human memory.


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