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Under The Microscope

THE MAKING OF MEMORY, by Steven Rose; Bantam 1994; 356 pages; $24.95

Memory is an elusive thing at the best of times, so imagine the difficulties involved in trying to pin down what makes memories, how they are stored and retrieved. This is what Steven Rose has spent the last 30 years doing. He's tried taking a very simple subject -- the memories of three-day-old chicks -- and teamed this with the intricate complexities of brain biochemistry.

It makes for fascinating reading. Rose is adamantly convinced of the importance of the the dynamic interactions between the structural, chemical and electrical systems of the cells and molecules making up the brain. He is also adamant that this does not mean that a reductionist approach is the right one when it comes to looking at the brain and its functions.

Rose is critical of earlier analogies of the brain and memory, whether the clockwork mechanisms proposed last century or the popular computer metaphors found in popular science writing. The first half of this book deals with the background to memory research, from metaphors to anatomical discoveries; the second half covers in detail Rose's work and the work of his colleagues in memory studies and neuroscience.

It's an interesting read, not just for the science it discusses but also for the process of that science. Rose is not afraid to talk about the role of animal experimentation in his work, the controversies that rage within his field and the problems which researchers encounter on a daily basis when dealing with something as apparently ephemeral as memory.

Vicki Hyde, NZSM