Why We Remember - Critical summary review - Charan Ranganath

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Why We Remember - critical summary review

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Self Help & Motivation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Why We Remember

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0593862724

Publisher: Random House Large Print

Critical summary review

The book powerfully promotes the need for further research in various areas of neuroscience, exploring topics such as the relationship between dopamine levels and Alzheimer's disease, the amygdala's role in shaping political beliefs, and the formation and retrieval of memories. Drawing from personal experiences and scientific studies, the author studies the complexity of memory formation, its influence on individual identity and societal structures, and how memory shapes our perceptions, emotions, and decisions. 

Notably, the book centers around the dynamic nature of memory, shaped by current understanding and emotional biases. Memories are depicted as reconstructed narratives influenced by individual experiences, emotions, and biological factors. Moreover, the author describes how memories serve as a mechanism for understanding the present, anticipating the future, and fostering curiosity. 

Through exploring the mechanisms of memory, the book aims to help readers understand how their remembering self influences relationships, choices, and identity. Divided into three parts, it covers fundamental memory mechanisms, explores hidden forces shaping our perceptions, and examines memory's role in adapting to a changing world. Along the way, the book presents stories of individuals profoundly affected by memory, highlighting its pivotal role in shaping humanity's past, present, and future.

Understanding memory formation and function

In "Where Is My Mind?" Charan Ranganath helps us learn more about human memory, exploring why we remember some events vividly while others fade away. He begins by acknowledging the overwhelming amount of information people encounter daily and discusses personal experiences to illustrate memory processes. Ranganath details the entire process of memory formation and forgetting, drawing from Hermann Ebbinghaus's work and explaining the role of neurons in forming memories. He highlights neural plasticity and discusses how adult brains can still reshape connections, using examples like learning a new language.

Addressing interference, where competing memories obstruct recollection, Ranganath stresses the importance of forming strong memories. Throughout, he blends personal anecdotes with scientific insights to thoroughly explore human memory.

In "Attention and Intention," Ranganath focuses on memory formation, emphasizing the roles of attention and intention. He compares memory to a cluttered desk, with distinctive memories standing out amid distractions. Ranganath explains how attention helps prioritize information and how intention directs attention to crucial details for memory formation.

Moving on to "The Central Executive," Ranganath's theme is the prefrontal cortex's role in memory and cognition. He corrects past misconceptions, explaining how the prefrontal cortex acts as a central executive, coordinating different memory processes. Ranganath illustrates this with research findings and clinical observations, highlighting the impact of prefrontal cortex damage on memory and cognitive tasks.

In "The Care and Feeding of Your Prefrontal Cortex," Ranganath discusses factors affecting prefrontal cortex function, such as aging, health conditions, and lifestyle choices. He offers strategies to support prefrontal cortex health, including sleep, exercise, and mindfulness. Ranganath also reflects on memory's nature, suggesting embracing forgetting and curating meaningful memories.

The time machine within us

Charan Ranganath focuses mainly on the roles of episodic and semantic memory, as well as the functions of the hippocampus in memory formation and retrieval. He begins his exploration by discussing how specific contexts, such as returning to one's homeland, can trigger vivid memories, illustrating the power of episodic memory in recalling past events along with their associated details. He contrasts this with semantic memory, which involves recalling facts without context, and highlights psychologist Endel Tulving's concept of episodic memory as a form of "mental time travel."

The author then discusses the value of episodic and semantic memory for learning and adaptation, comparing human memory to machine learning's limits. He stresses the brain's ability to derive broad knowledge from previous experiences while recalling individual events. Shifting the focus to the hippocampus, Ranganath recounts the seminal work of Brenda Milner on Patient H.M. and subsequent studies on patients with dense amnesia. He discusses the distinction between episodic and semantic memory, highlighting the hippocampus's specific role in episodic memory formation.

Advancements in fMRI technology have allowed researchers to observe unique "memory codes" in the hippocampus, enabling the retrieval of specific events based on their context. Ranganath explores the evolutionary significance of episodic memory in orienting individuals in time and space, citing examples from animal studies and Alzheimer's disease research. The author also discusses how contextual cues such as smells, tastes, and emotions influence memory recall, with the hippocampus organizing memories based on these elements. He addresses challenges in memory retrieval, including infantile amnesia, attributing them to ongoing brain development and structural changes.

Furthermore, Ranganath's passages present an in-depth study of human memory, describing its inner workings, episodic and semantic memory roles, and the hippocampus's vital functions in memory formation, contextual encoding, and spatial-temporal navigation.

Influence on mood and identity

Ranganath explores many aspects of memory, providing full perspective on how it functions and affects our lives. He begins by describing event boundaries, which are adjustments in our perception that occur as context changes, and how they affect episodic memory. He explains how memories are better encoded at these boundaries and describes their role in our sense of time, particularly in situations like prolonged lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, Ranganath analyzes nostalgia, demonstrating how pleasant memories can raise mood while negative memories can cause emotions of detachment. He highlights the value of learning from our experiences and how recalling moments of kindness, wisdom, or courage may shape our identities and behaviors.

The latter part of the chapter focuses on memory techniques, particularly chunking and schemas, which experts across various fields utilize to excel. Ranganath provides practical strategies for enhancing memory performance in everyday life through these techniques. Ranganath likewise addresses the default mode network (DMN) in the brain, describing its role in memory creation and its relationship to imagination. He looks at how the DMN maintains schemas and aids memory retrieval, noting its role in sophisticated cognitive processes beyond mind wandering.

Lastly, Ranganath explores memory's reconstructive nature, citing examples of false recollections and discussing reality monitoring to distinguish between real memories and imagined scenarios. He also examines the interplay between memory and creativity, suggesting that memories serve as raw materials for imaginative processes.

The dopamine effect

Charan Ranganath's thorough examination of memory, emotion, and decision-making offers a multidimensional account of the complex interplay between these cognitive processes. Ranganath explains how memories are frequently linked to significant emotional reactions, emphasizing the disproportionate recall of highs and lows in previous events. Drawing from clinical insights and neuroscience research, he illustrates this phenomenon through case studies, particularly focusing on individuals affected by traumatic events like PTSD.

The author discusses the underlying mechanisms of how emotions influence memory formation and retention, discussing the role of survival circuits, neuromodulators like noradrenaline, and brain structures like the amygdala. He also examines the effects of stress on memory, highlighting both its enhancing and detrimental impacts, including hippocampal volume reduction and memory overgeneralization.

Furthermore, Ranganath explores the role of dopamine in encoding rewarding experiences and shaping expectations, shedding light on its influence on learning and memory. His discussion extends to impulsive behaviors, addictive tendencies, and the neurological basis of déjà vu, underscoring the complexity of memory-related phenomena.

Throughout his narrative, Ranganath emphasizes the collaborative nature of scientific progress, recounting pivotal moments in memory research and the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. He highlights the distinct brain mechanisms underlying familiarity and episodic memory, challenging previous conceptions and providing insights into conditions such as amnesia.

All about the cognitive biases

Overall, Ranganath mostly focuses on the dynamic interplay between memory, perception, and attention, shedding light on how these cognitive processes shape our experiences and behaviors in everyday life. He draws parallels between memory, familiarity, and perception, mainly focusing on recognizing faces and how memory guides our attention and responses to novel or unexpected stimuli.

The author begins by pointing out the role of familiarity in memory, explaining how the brain tends to generalize patterns based on prior experiences. This tendency is compared to neural networks, which find general patterns in the world. However, the author notes that this mechanism may fail in situations with limited experience, such as recognizing faces. The example of Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, wrongfully arrested due to a faulty facial recognition match, illustrates the potential dangers of relying solely on automated systems without considering individual circumstances.

Ranganath discusses the biases embedded in facial recognition technology, particularly concerning racial misidentification, which raises broader societal concerns about bias in law enforcement and human perception. Studies cited in the text demonstrate how exposure to faces of different races impacts recognition abilities, with implications for eyewitness testimonies in criminal cases. The author then discusses memory's role in orienting us to new and unexpected events, drawing parallels to Spider-Man's "spider-sense" as a metaphor for humans' innate ability to detect threats or anomalies. Personal anecdotes and research findings illustrate how memory enables us to anticipate and respond to environmental changes.

He explains the neurological mechanisms behind visual exploration, explaining how memory guides eye movements and attention. The hippocampus, a critical brain structure for memory, plays a crucial role in detecting novelty and prompting exploratory behaviors. Studies in the text demonstrate how the hippocampus influences eye movements and facilitates recognizing changes in familiar environments. The interconnectedness between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex in predicting and responding to novel stimuli plays a significant role. The hippocampus signals the presence of novelty, while the prefrontal cortex aids in utilizing this information effectively. Dysfunction in this communication can lead to difficulties in recognizing and responding to novel stimuli.

Benefits for learning, justice, and personal development

Ranganath illuminates the complexities inherent in human memory by exploring memory malleability, error-driven learning, and the role of sleep in memory consolidation. He discusses the benefits for various domains, including criminal justice, education, and personal development. Memory is a cornerstone of human cognition, influencing our understanding of the past, present, and future. However, the malleability of memory raises questions about its reliability, particularly in legal proceedings and learning environments. 

His work sheds light on these complexities, highlighting the interplay between memory alteration, error-driven learning, and sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Ranganath explains the malleability of memory using historical examples and psychological research. By examining cases like the Richard Ivens case and Loftus's experiments, he demonstrates how memory can be distorted through suggestive questioning and exposure to misinformation. This has profound implications for criminal justice, where wrongful convictions can occur due to unreliable eyewitness testimonies and coerced confessions. 

The concept of error-driven learning serves as a central theme in Ranganath's work, emphasizing the importance of engaging with challenges and mistakes for effective learning. Through personal anecdotes and cognitive psychology research, the author describes how active engagement with errors enhances memory retention and skill acquisition. This has practical implications for educational strategies, advocating approaches prioritizing testing, feedback, and spaced learning to optimize learning outcomes.

Ranganath also studies the role of sleep in memory consolidation, highlighting the significance of both slow-wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stages. By exploring targeted memory reactivation and memory spillover effects, he underscores the importance of sleep in solidifying memories and fostering associative connections. This has implications for learning and problem-solving, personal growth, and emotional well-being.

Individuals can adopt strategies to enhance memory accuracy, optimize learning outcomes, and promote personal growth by understanding the mechanisms underlying memory alteration, error-driven learning, and sleep-dependent consolidation.

The impact of social interactions on memory construction

Ranganath's contributions encompass a broad spectrum of memory research, from individual cognitive processes to collective memory dynamics. Memory, an essential component of human cognition, plays a fundamental role in shaping individual experiences and societal narratives. As a prominent figure in memory research, Ranganath has contributed significantly to our understanding of memory's complexities. Ranganath's discussion on error-driven learning challenges conventional approaches to education that prioritize rote memorization and standardized testing. He advocates embracing mistakes as integral to the learning process, emphasizing the importance of continuous improvement over short-term performance metrics. The author's insights call for a paradigm shift in educational practices toward fostering a culture of resilience and growth.

Ranganath's study of social interactions reveals how collective storytelling and collaborative recalling alter individual and collective memories. Through his studies on therapy groups and family dynamics, he demonstrates how shared experiences within social groups influence memory formation and identity development. He points out the collaborative nature of memory construction and its implications for understanding the dynamics of interpersonal relationships.

In his examination of collective memory, Ranganath shows how group interactions can enhance and distort recollections of past events. He discusses factors such as collaborative inhibition and dominant voices within groups, highlighting the complexities of memory dynamics in social contexts. His insights have implications for understanding societal narratives, historical interpretations, and the transmission of cultural knowledge.

His reflections on memory's evolutionary origins provide a broader context for understanding its adaptive functions. By exploring the neural substrates of memory and its changes across the lifespan, he illuminates the evolutionary advantages of memory processes. 

Final notes

"Discover the fascinating world of memory with Charan Ranganath's captivating book, "Why We Remember." Ranganath takes us on a trip into the depths of memory, revealing its mysteries in a way that's both accessible and thought-provoking.

The author explores the different types of memory, from the fleeting moments of short-term memory to the enduring imprints of long-term memory. With vivid examples and personal anecdotes, he paints a vivid picture of how memory shapes our identities and influences our everyday decisions.

However, it is not only about the positive aspects of remembering. Ranganath also discusses the nuances of painful memories and how prejudice might distort our perceptions. By shining a light on these darker aspects, he empowers readers to navigate the nuances of memory with greater clarity and understanding.

Through it all, Ranganath's prose is both eloquent and conversational, inviting readers to join him on this intellectual adventure. Whether you're a neuroscience enthusiast or simply curious about the workings of the human mind, "Why We Remember" is an engrossing journey that will leave you with a greater respect for the power of memory.

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Who wrote the book?

A distinguished academic in Psychology, he is affiliated with UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and directs the Dynamic Memory Lab. His research, using neuroimaging and behavioral methods, focuses on human memory and executive control. Notable publications include studies on hippocampal activity patterns (Neuron, 2014) an... (Read more)

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