101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for Memory

By , April 26, 2010

I was intrigued by a brief mention of 101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for Memory (by Terry McDermott) in a local bookstore’s newspaper insert, which led me to search out some reviews online. Based mostly on one positive review (by B.T. Shaw, in The Oregonian), I bought the Kindle edition of the book from Amazon on the day it was released.  After finishing the book, I was satisfied because I felt that I’d learned a lot about the biology behind memory; but I was also disappointed because the review had left me with higher expectations.



101 Theory Drive recounts two histories: first, a broad history of neuroscience and the understanding of how memory works; and second, a very specific “in-person” account of the last several years in the research lab of scientist Gary Lynch. I was impressed with the unique access that Mr. McDermott seemed to have to Lynch’s lab over this period.

But after I finished McDermott’s book, I visited a bookstore, hoping to read more (and specifically looking for some of the books listed in McDermott’s annotated “Selected Bibliography”).  What I found was a 1992 book that wasn’t included in McDermott’s bibliography; it was called In the Palaces of Memory: How We Build the Worlds Inside Our Heads, by George Johnson — essentially recounting the same history of the same researcher’s work two decades ago.

I feel somewhat cheated by Mr. McDermott’s failure to mention this earlier in-depth reportage of the same researcher’s work.  I didn’t buy Mr. Johnson’s book, which I assumed would be quite outdated, especially considering the very recent developments mentioned in McDermott’s book — but the omission of any reference to that book seems quite irresponsible (even if McDermott believed that Johnson’s book was poorly-written or hopelessly dated, he should not have implied that his own access to Lynch and his lab was so special).

Putting aside my offense at this journalistic lapse, I did enjoy reading McDermott’s book, and I feel that I learned quite a lot. Perhaps the most important lesson was a clearer understanding of just how far we are from actually understanding how human memory works.

The subject of the book is the mechanical (chemical/biological) process by which “elements of memories” are actually “stored” at the cellular level.  By the time I’d finished the book, I was surprised at how clearly I thought I understood this process (and I was impressed at the scientific accomplishment of identifying the process), even as I also recognized (with McDermott) that this discovery is only a tiny, tiny fragment of the knowledge required to actually understand how human memory actually works.

I was drawn to this book because I’ve recently experienced some strange cognitive and memory problems, which ultimately seem to be psychological (stress, anxiety, and depression).  I wanted to learn a little bit more about how the brain works (and how the mind works, and how stress and anxiety impact the processes of memory and cognition).  I achieved my goal — I learned “a little bit more” (in fairness, perhaps a lot more) but this hasn’t really brought me any closer to resolving my personal memory or cognition problems.

McDermott’s book is well-written and engaging, and the scientific concepts are introduced gently — slowly building some foundations and then adding on the specific concepts and discoveries emerging from Lynch’s research.  I found the book somewhat disjointed and sometimes repetitive, probably because the book was adapted and expanded from a series of articles McDermott wrote for the Los Angeles Times. (This was actually a surprisingly familiar experience for me.  In 2002, I wrote a glowing positive review of another book adapted by a different reporter from another series of articles in the Los Angeles Times — And Still We Rise, by Miles Corwin; that book helped inspire me to consider and pursue teaching as a career, though I eventually opted not to continue with that direction. McDermott’s book isn’t nearly as good as Corwin’s.)

I recommend 101 Theory Drive to anyone with a serious interest in learning more about how memory works, and how scientific research is done.  It’s a good book.

Disclaimer: The book links to Amazon.com are affiliate links (paid advertising).

2 Responses to “101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for Memory”

  1. Richard Hake says:

    Mark,

    You wrote: “Based mostly on one positive review (by B.T. Shaw, in The Oregonian), I bought the Kindle edition of the book from Amazon on the day it was released.”

    I too have read the review by B.T. Shaw. Do you know who s(he) is. A Goole search turned as likely candidates only the poet B.T. Shaw 75 at Portland State.

  2. Mark Welch says:

    I don’t know anything about that reviewer; you could probably email the Oregonian to ask them if they could forward your inquiry to the writer.

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