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55 of 58 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Every psychiatrist has some quick tests to check on how your memory is working: reciting digits forward and backward, recalling the presidents sequentially, remembering three objects after three minutes, and so on. Such functions of memory are important, but they are not what we think of as real, personal memory, the subjective recall of what has gone on in our lives, the family reunions, childhood joys and traumas, successive homes, and so on. These stored personal experiences form our "autobiographical memory." It has only been known as such for about twenty years, basically because the other types of memory (like digit recall) have been more easily subject to psychological testing. The autobiographical memory is the main subject of essays in _Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past_ (Cambridge University Press) by Douwe Draaisma (translated from the Dutch by Arnold and Erica Pomerans). There are surprisingly few hard answers in this book. In writing about the near-death experience, for instance, Draaisma says that examining the hypotheses that might explain it makes clear that "... all they amount to is a handful of conjectures, a few statistical links and suggestive analogies." Nonetheless, our autobiographical memories are such an integral part of ourselves that it is fascinating to learn how scientists have been trying to explain just how this vital part of personality operates, and how much of the memory capacity that we take for granted is still mysterious and beyond even initial probes.

To start with, despite the book's title which is taken from just one of its chapters, there is not a fully accepted reason for older people to think that life is going faster for them than it did when they were younger. William James himself in 1890 explained that in youth, there were novel experiences, something new every day, but every passing year brought routine which smoothed the days, weeks, and years into a collapse of time. A period full of memories, viewed in retrospect, seems to expand and be fuller and longer. There is a chapter to examine the universal phenomenon that that none of us remember our earliest year or two, not at all. "We shall have to wait and see if our life ends with memory loss," Draaisma writes, "what is certain is that it starts with it." We did have working memories at the time; we were adding buckets of words to our vocabularies, and we had a daily capacity of remembering our relatives, our pets, our routines. A possible explanation for the veil drawn over the first years of memory is that the child has yet to develop full consciousness; if there is no "I" within, there can be no autobiographical memory.

As befits an expert writing for laymen, Draaisma writes powerfully using comparisons. In discussing the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon, where you remember you know something but cannot remember the thing itself, he writes that there is something that has stayed back in the memory, "something like the discoloured patch on the wall whose outlines tell you what used to hang there for years." There is a good range of chapters here to cover aspects of an appealing subject, including the memory and calculating power of so-called idiot savants, the "flashbulb memory" that enables us to tell exactly (or maybe not) what we were doing when we heard of an earth-shattering event like the 9/11 attacks, the scientific evaluation of déjà vu, the examination of why smells can produce such evocative memories, a checkers grandmaster explaining (or being unable to explain) how he plays multiple blindfold games simultaneously, and why we remember humiliating memories so clearly and permanently. It is fascinating that with such tools as brain scans, we are getting closer to understanding how the mind works, but the memory we take for granted every day has barely begun to yield its secrets.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 2008
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Draaisma, a professor of psychology in the Netherlands, is a highly regarded scientist who has devoted his professional life to studying memories, but he is also a good and entertaining writer. So when he sets out in each of the essays in this book to highlight one of the many fascinating aspects of memory, you are garanteed to get a good read. The title of the book is just one of the very interesting and thought-provoking subjects he touches upon (and in case you wonder: no, there is no one clear answer to that question). A little surprise in the book comes when Draaisma switches gears and writes very eloquently about certain historical events during WWII - which then leads on to legal issues and the reliability of memories in court.
The original Dutch-language version of this book gets 5 stars from me, hands down. The English translation loses a bit of the spontaneity and entusiasm that Draaisma conveys in the original, but if you're not planning on learning Dutch, and you do have an interest in memory, then you will enjoy this book a lot.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
The question in the title of the book is tackled only towards the end very briefly but that doesn't render the book irrelevant. On the contrary, it is a unique blend of historical perspective on the psychology of memory and literature. Even though the text is generally relaxed and targeted toward the casual interested reader it provides good references on memory studies. Especially the chapter on near-death experiences provide some good and competing hypotheses which try to link the data to what we currently know about brain.

What struck me most and took me by surprise was a passage related to the metaphor of 'viewing one's whole life as a film in fast motion'. The author showed that long before the invention of cinema the metaphor of 'panorama' was used for that kind of near-death experiences however now that the cinema is so much established everybody who had that kind of dramatic experience refers to what happened in terms of cinema and this may be leading to the loss of some details which cannot be expressed in the language of cinema (such as seeing different part of life, of memory all at once, which is possible in the panorama metaphor but not so using the metaphor of cinema).
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This book is not completely on the actual question of why life speeds up as you get older, but rather an amalgam of various psychological anomalies and occurrences related to memory. I was looking more for a book focused solely on why life speeds up as you get older (it's in there but not as big a part of the book as I had expected). Nonetheless, the book is a fascinating read -- don't be deterred by the small amount of reviews it has.
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on January 25, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I was expecting a pop science type of book, but instead was pleasantly surprised by the depth that he takes the reader into how time and memory affect how we see how past. Some of the research details were a bit boring, but considering the size of the book, I don't think he'd be able to condense it any. A good read, esp if you are familiar with the work of Oliver Sachs
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on April 25, 2015
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This author is amazing. His writing is clear, the cases are interesting, and the topic is timely as America ages. I have now purchased and read all of his books.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 2008
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I would recommend this book for students, mental health professionals, and the general public. Not only does the author use understandable terms to describe technical situations, he uses clear, precise examples to help his readers understand this intricate subject. It is an easy read with gentle pacing and a very human touch. The author is European but presents universal ideas.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This is a nice book where the reader will get an explanation to common situations as déjà vu or near to death experiences, as well as a description of the amazing capabilities of apparently disabled people like savants.
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6 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a truly wonderful book, from which I have received many inputs for my own scholarly endeavours. Here I would just like to point out what is probably a slip of the keyboard, on p. 211 of the English edition. In the formula "'before' to the left of 'after'", occurring twice, in the first occurrence 'left' should presumably be 'right'. Writing from the right to left, as Israelis do, does indeed seem to suggest a different direction of the flow of time.
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