Memory, Consciousness, and the Brain: Tha Tallinn Conference / the Oxford Handbook of Memory

By Bruce, Darryl; Smith, Marilyn | Canadian Psychology, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Memory, Consciousness, and the Brain: Tha Tallinn Conference / the Oxford Handbook of Memory


Bruce, Darryl, Smith, Marilyn, Canadian Psychology


ENDEL TULVING (Ed.) Memory, Consciousness, and the Brain: The Tallinn Conference Philadelphia PA: Psychology Press, 1999, 414 pages (ISBN "4169-015-5, us$64.95, Hardcover)

ENDEL TULVING and FERGus m. CRAIK (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Memory New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 707 pages (ISBN 0-19-512265-8, us$65, Hardcover) Reviewed by DARRYL BRucE and MARILYN SMITH

For those involved in the study of memory, the year 2000 may prove to be especially memorable. The reason for this is the publication of two notable books on the topic: Memory, Consciousness, and the Brain: The Tallinn Conference, edited by Endel Tulving, and The Oxford Handbook of Memory, edited by Tulving and Fergus Craik, both longtime and distinguished Canadian scientists in the field. We take up the two books - hereafter referred to as MCB and OHM, respectively - in the order mentioned and then tie them together lightly at the end of our review.

MCB is an outgrowth of a conference organized by the editor and his wife, and held in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Many aspects of the conference were related to the editor's personal past: He was born in Estonia, the conference coincided with his 71st birthday, and the participants were his friends, colleagues, or former students; all of them, except for a classicist and an expert on intelligence, frequent contributors to research on memory and its relation to brain and mind. The book opens with a spirited and somewhat irreverent prologue that is vintage Tulving. He writes that the meeting was intended to be a blueprint for future scientific conferences: Each participant was to offer a single most important idea relevant to memory, consciousness, and the brain, and these ideas would then be discussed at later junctures over the course of the conference. Though the editor characterizes the scheme as "a modestly huge partial success" (p. xiii), the book itself has the appearance of a typical conference volume - a number of chapters (25 plus a prologue and epilogue) that are relatively brief treatments of a variety of topics. The organization of the book, accurately described by the editor as "largely illusory" (p. xv), blocks the 25 topic chapters into sections labeled Memory (11 chapters), Consciousness (7 chapters), and The Brain (7 chapters). The editor's hope is that the book will be useful as an introduction to representative research currently being conducted at the boundaries of memory, consciousness, and the brain.

To what extent has this objective been achieved? The book certainly serves up a broad menu of topics. Not surprisingly, those that Tulving himself has brought to centre stage are all there: retrieval, encoding-retrieval interactions, varieties of consciousness, memory systems, and brain-hemisphere encoding-retrieval asymmetries. The list goes well beyond that, however, and ranges from, at one alphabetical extreme, absent-mindedness to, at the other, the Yerkes-Dodson law, with a smorgasbord of subjects in between. The investigative procedures similarly cover the entire gamut, from the behavioural methods typically employed in the study of memory to the contemporary neuro-imaging techniques currently being used to investigate brain functioning during the performance of different memory tasks. Some chapters are more theoretical in nature, others more empirical; one is methodological, and yet another leans toward clinical application. In sum, the reader looking for something intriguing in the way of research on memory and consciousness in the brain is likely to find it in this volume.

What are MCB's weaknesses and strengths? The main sin is something that comes with the territory of all conference volumes: uneveness in quality, readability, and organizations, and uncertainty about the audience to be reached by each of the chapters. The problem could have been lessened had the editor imposed a heavier editorial hand than he evidently has. Especially annoying were a couple of chapters that proceeded as though there were no useful prior research relevant to the problem at hand or, worse still, to the solution proposed. …

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