Making memories with Steven Rose

I chaired an event where Steven Rose talked about his latest book (c0-authored with Hilary Rose) the other week, and it reminded me how much I enjoyed some of his earlier writing. Here’s my review of his fine account of the experimental life, The Making of Memory. I recall it almost didn’t get written. I opened the padded envelope carelessly, thought, “how nice, they’ve sent me a copy of Steven’s new title” and left it on a pile. When I picked it up again several weeks later a review slip fell out, inviting me to have an opinion. Fortunately, it wasn’t too late for this very positive piece to make it into print. The book went on to win the Science Book Prize (in the days we used to joke weakly that you had to be called Steve to win) so others agreed with this verdict…

Memory can mean so many things: where you left you toothbrush last night; your mother’s birthday; how to spell “eczema”; how to play the cello part in a Beethoven quartet. Steven Rose’s stand-in for all of these is what happens in the brain of a day-old chick when it pecks at a bead on the end of a piece of wire. His book explains why.

It also explains a great deal else for, through a richly detailed account of his own research, Rose gives his answer to the question, “Why do scientists do the things they do?” The combination of author and subject yields a particularly satisfying answer.

The author because Rose has long looked outside the laboratory to ponder the place of science in a wider culture. The subject because memory is the province of novelists, poets and psychoanalysts as well as biochemists and neuroanatomists. And the 30 years of Rose’s own research career have seen the rise of neuroscience as a reputable speciality, and his own work move from an unpromising investigation of an unfashionable organism to something nearer the mainstream. This itself illustrates many facets of how science works: disparate groups around the globe gradually hammering out ways of investigating neural processes with enough in common for the results to make sense when comparing different organisms having different experiences.

The result is a series of narratives woven together. There is the story of one researcher’s induction into science and his career in brain research since the 1960s, much of it as professor of biology at the Open University. There is a longer historical look at ideas about memory – individual memory as the underpinning of identity and collective memory as a social force – and approaches to theorising about memory through biology, psychology and computer science. And there is the tale of the chicks, whose small brains are finally giving up the details of a mechanism which fits the dominant model in memory research most beautifully – that of synaptic connections between selected neurons remodelled in response to the situation the creature will remember.

The last story comes nearest to the conventions of pop science writing, but even here Rose makes it clear that if he is “telling it like it is”, there are also other versions,, and many aspects of the tale are still open-ended. If all this sounds a trifle self-conscious, it is so deftly done that the reader is carried along just as effectively as in any account of science in the more common detective story frame. And the advantage is that the book combines  an insider’s view of the research, dense with the doing of science, with a more philosophically and sociologically reflective account of why it is done the way it is.

The book opens with a day in the life of the lab, an as-it-happens description of a particular experiment. Rose tells you what it feels like to oversee a batch of chicks in their red-lit training pens, to expose them so stimuli, to inject their tiny heads with radiochemicals, and to dissect out their brains after a biochemically suitable interval to see what use they have made of the injection.

The focus shifts to the other narratives for several chapters, so that by the time you meet the chicks again, you have a well-rounded idea of how they and their handler got there, and why they suffer their bizarre fate instead of ending up on some supermarket shopper’s dining table. Behind the researcher and his little band of peeping chicks lies a long history of speculation, more formal theorising, and a network of investigators challenging, complementing or confirming one another’s work.

As this picture is gradually built up it incorporates Rose’s views on ahost of questions around or within the actual research. He discusses the legitimacy of animal experiments, for example. Aside from the redoubtable Colin Blakemore, Rose is one of the few British scientists who is prepared both to describe publicly how his laboratory animals are treated, and justify their use in pursuit of his own, socially sanctioned goals.

Equally valuable, given the seemingly unchallengeable ascendancy of molecular biology, he shows how it is possible to embrace reductionism in experimental design without accepting it as a complete philosophy of nature. His position, that a reductionist methodology in research is needed to devise experiments that produce clear results, echoes that of the historian Donald Fleming who once wrote that reductionism is the only tactic that can make biology work at the point of experiment. But Rose is clear that it is wrong to overinterpret results from the artificial world built in the lab, to assume that changes involving a single variable ever take place in, as it were, real life.

The ultimate challenge for Rose, and the one he tries to meet here, is to bring together all the various levels of biological understanding of memory as an example of a wider, unified view of life. “Can we be at peace with ourselves i9f we recognise that our deepest, most sacred feelings, of love for others and awe at the Universe in which we find ourselves, are at the same time represented in our heads by patterns of  connections between nerve cells and the electrical flux between them, the synthesis of particular proteins and the breakdown of others? I believe that we have to learn how to integrate these separate knowledges and feelings if we are to achieve the potential that our very humanity, our own evolved brains and societies, offer us.”

It is a fine credo, and Rose’s attempt to live up to it has produced perhaps the most involving book about the doing of science since June Goodfield’s equally ambitious An Imagined World a decade ago. (1993)

(The Making of Memory: From Molecules to Mind. Bantam Press)

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