How is the selective nature of Memory explored by Ian McEwan and in Biology?

by Imogene Ash

March 19, 2012


In this article, the selective nature of memory is explored in both the fiction of Ian McEwan and in the field of biology.

In literature, it seems not only that the nature of the narrative has an unalterable effect on the reliability of any narrative account, but reliability seems also to be affected by the act of writing from hindsight and the inaccuracies of retrospection.

Biologically it is apparent that memories that are most prominent are those which hold emotional significance and emotionally rich memories are proved to be recalled more easily than neutral ones. This explains why narrators seem to draw a focus on emotionally significant moments in their narrative accounts and suggests, perhaps, the reason for the weighting of detail McEwan puts on these episodes.

The selectivity of memory, therefore, acts as a means to hinder and inform the way we or any narrator reacts to all experiences. This constituent of memory acts to isolate us as individuals, as the fact that any narrative or actual account is restricted due to the partiality of memory accounts for the subjectivity of both perception and narration.


McEwan and Memory: the biological and selective nature of memory in Ian McEwan’s novels


“Understanding how and why we humans do literature asks us to understand ourselves as the biological creatures we are” (Holland, 2009 p.5) and it is partly through trickery of the brain that we are able to be ‘engrossed’ by any piece of literature. For reasons that are unclear, when we read a fictional book we accept what we read as an alternative form of reality without continually questioning how ‘realistic’ happenings in a piece of literature may be. We often feel empathy towards another human being in our daily lives; this is an act of our brains triggering the same synaptic connections and releasing the same hormones as another person, to allow us to feel we are in an emotionally similar state to someone else. This, as referred to by Vittorio Gallese, is known as the “mirror neuron” system (Gallese, 2001) and is described as the process when an observed action “produces in the observer’s premotor cortex an activation pattern resembling that occurring when the observer actively executes the same action.” (Gallese, 2001). This process allows us to “pretend to be in the other’s ‘mental shoes’” (Gallese, 2001) and in the same way, we empathise with the protagonist or another character in a book and experience the feeling of genuine happiness or sadness when reading. In fact, the act of reading engages genuine emotional response in the brain; the mirror neuron system is therefore activated in a very similar way in both our everyday sensory experiences and also when we are reading black and white text on a page. How do we, therefore, truly distinguish between the real and the fictional, as the art of literature and the way we respond to it seems to prove the unreliability of the human brain?


Ian McEwan uses memory in his novels as a form of control for his narrator, as the information that is recalled in a reconstructive narrative such as Enduring Love and Atonement is highly selective. Reconstruction of a memory involves two different brain processes; recognition and recall. Recognition utilizes the “sensory aspect of our memory” (Sheldrake, 2011) and is something we do naturally by drawing similarities between something we are experiencing in the present with something we have experienced in the past. This is what Rupert Sheldrake refers to as, an “awareness that a present experience is also remembered” (Sheldrake, 2011, p.308) and so this is essentially a realisation of familiarity. Recognition is an easier process than recall, an operation which, in contrast, is an active process, involving the motor part of our memory and requires us to remember connections or meanings to form an internal reconstruction of the past (Sheldrake, 2011). Such a construction, when adopted by a narrator, could cause doubt in their reliability due to the partiality of memory, leaving their narrative account undeniably filtered and incomplete.


As stated by Eva Maria Mauter “a narrator usually narrates about past events recalling them from his memory. The memory of these events, detailed as it is, might nevertheless be influenced and revised by beliefs, expectations or further experiences.” (Mauter, 2009, p.43)

Enduring Love itself is a narrative that is reconstructed by Joe, whose account has the meticulous nature of a scientist, a characteristic that leaves the reader to expect that this same minute attention to detail will be present in all aspects of the narrative that Joe recounts with hindsight. The novel reveals Joe’s “fastidious regulation of emotion” and the use of “interpolations of scientific explanations for narrative events” (Greenberg, 2007), evidently, description is used with clinical precision. He exclaims early in the novel, “all that sincerity would permit me were the facts” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006, p.7) suggesting apparent objectivity. Following this, when reading such a narrative, we accept Joe’s account without question, because both being enthralled by a novel and putting trust in an omnipotent narrator seem to be contained in a kind of mutually symbiotic relationship. However, narrative omnipotence is undermined through the reliance on memory to reconstruct the story. Joe alludes to this weakness during the novel, admitting “knowing what I know now” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006, p.2) that he is unable to exclude some details “from later reconstructions” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006, p.167). He may not have known such details when the moments he describes were actually experienced, and these are added in, instead, due to the fact that the account is written after the events have happened rather than narrating them as they occur. This is demonstrated with the uncertainty of whether, in Enduring Love, the memory of a “man who sat eating alone” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006, p. 167) is accurate, or merely a false memory. This is an example of “the confusion hindsight can cause memory” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006, p. 167) and this distorted memory is evidence that the selectivity of memory causes us to doubt narrative reliability. From the beginning of the novel, the balloon accident is described as the “encounter that would unhinge us” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006, p.2) suggesting a lapse in a constant or accurate account of events during the course of the novel.


Contrastingly, rather than a constant doubt in the reliability of the narrator’s memory throughout the duration of the novel, it is not until the end of Atonement, which appears to be narrated in the third person, that narrative reliability is questioned. It is in the final section of Atonement when the narration switches from third to first person that we as readers realize that Briony has constructed the entirety of the novel herself as an act of redemption. However, although her contrived happy ending is the method through which she tries to atone for her destruction of the relationship between her sister and Robbie, the fallacious ending of the novel is not succumbed to in its entirety, as guilt causes Briony to admit that her account was fictitious.  According to Jonathan Greenberg “the knowledge possessed by a particularized, embodied human narrator has limits that a disembodied third-person narrator logically does not” (Greenberg, 2007, p.14). Perhaps, then a third person narration allows us to ignore or overlook limitations that are undeniably present in a first person narrator due to the reconstructive nature of their memory.


It is suggested by David Goldknopf that first person narrators are driven by a confessional motive (Greenberg, 2007), a presumption which may lead a narrator into the position of a spectator, and the narrative itself becomes merely considered as a report of what is seen. In light of this, what any individual witnesses in public or private situations is profoundly governed by what they have experienced earlier in their lives. Neurologist Adam Zeman argues this in his book Consciousness: A User’s Guide, claiming that perception is similar to a sort of internal construction, which is shaped by our past. He states that “if the new is always informed by the old, ‘what we see’ cannot be specified purely in terms of raw physical stimuli. Perception is always metaphorical: everything, in fact, is ‘something else’” (Zeman, 2002). It follows that any narration or reading of a novel is based on what Holland calls a “stream of memories” (Holland, 2009, p.127) that begin in early childhood. Holland’s example is one of a child with an abusive father who has an early episodic memory of his father beating him with a hose. If after these experiences, this individual reads Hamlet, his mistrust of men or fatherly figures will affect the way in which he perceives the characters. Holland suggests “he might have more fear of Claudius than most people” or “he might see Polonius as more of a threat than a comic figure” (Holland, 2009, p.139). Such reactions are the result of memories, stronger memories are those where intense emotion is felt or experienced.


Continually, it is the memories of events we consider to be emotional that are most prominent in our minds, a notion that is supported by Elizabeth Kensinger’s work into the effect of emotion on memory. She suggests that we have a “memory boost” for negative experiences or objects, which are somehow recalled more effectively than neutral ones (Elizabeth Kensinger, 2008). When, in Saturday, Baxter attacks Perowne’s family he admits; “powerful feelings have obliterated the memory” (McEwan, Saturday, 2006, p.224) implying, as supported by Elizabeth Kensinger’s work, that when experiencing something, a mental “trade-off” occurs, which results in “enhancement for emotionally relevant items at the expense of other features” (Elizabeth Kensinger, 2008). This theory explains the profound effect of the negative experience Stephen has of losing his daughter in The Child in Time, as because this memory holds such eminence in his mind, it drives him to mistake another girl for his own daughter. McEwan shows that although our strongest memories are those of emotional significance, the emotion dominates the account we can give of an experience at the cost of many other details, which may be the reason that leads Stephen to the false identification of his daughter. Following this, what we perceive are memories of the greatest clarity, may, in fact, be deficient in small details and distorted by the emotional importance that they hold. In such situations our use of what McEwan refers to in Enduring Love as “clammy emotional logic” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006, p.222) results in our memories being skewed by our irrepressible emotional responses. This “memory boost” accounts for the weighting of detail McEwan’s narrators place on specific events in his novels, which are commonly those of emotional significance. For example, Briony’s narration of Robbie and Cecilia’s encounter by the fountain, Joe’s narration of the hot air balloon crash and the narration of the invasion of Baxter into Henry’s home to attack his family. From Kathleen Taylor’s book, Brainwashing: The science of thought control, it is evident that we have more detailed and more easily recalled memories of consequential moments because of the stress we feel when we experience them. This suggests it is not merely the emotion we feel that makes a memory eminent in our minds, but also the biological response this emotion triggers in our brains.


When an individual encounters a stressful situation an instinctive response is prompted; heart rate increases and the brain activates nerves, triggering the release of the “fight or flight” hormone (adrenaline) from the adrenal gland. Adrenaline puts “neurons on high alert for any incoming signal” (Taylor, 2004, p.153) an evolutionary old reaction that we undergo when encountering threat, to maximize chances of survival. As Taylor mentions, the brain normally filters “out a great deal of information before it reaches the cerebral cortex, but during a stress response these filters are opened up so that signals pour in” (Taylor, 2004, p.153). This response suggests that in situations where we undergo stress, our neurons process more information than they usually would do, due to the production of adrenaline. Therefore, a greater number of synaptic connections are formed in the brain, allowing us to build up a stronger memory of the event just experienced, which then can be strengthened further through recall. The effect of recall is antithetical, as although frequent reconstructions of episodic memories will strengthen the synaptic connections in the brain and therefore result in memories that are more prominent in our minds, constant recall also allows for the memory to ‘mutate’. Each time we reconstruct a memory it changes because of the “chasm between what your brain knows and what your mind is capable of accessing”(Eagleman, 2011, p.55). This notion is acknowledged in Enduring Love when recounting the attempted attack on Joe’s life, where he discloses that it “became a temptation to invent or elaborate details about the table next to ours, to force memory to deliver what was never captured” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006, p.166). It is through a similar temptation that we all experience, that memories are able to distort. Often, knowledge that we gain following an event can cause our reconstructions to be skewed by present opinion, an opinion, which may not have been held when the moment in question actually occurred. The frequent reconsolidation of memories is an active and ongoing process which constantly involves the recreation of past events, indicating that there can be no entirely objective account of any sensory experience. Such inaccurate reconstructions are also explored in The Child in Time, where after Kate’s disappearance, Stephen believes he “might have been conscious of a figure in a dark coat” yet he admits this thought “was the weakest suspicion brought to life by a desperate memory” (McEwan, The Child in Time, 1992, p.12).     


Selected information is turned into a memory through the firing together of neurons in the brain. A group of neurons transmit information through electrical impulses, which originate from a stimulus. When an electrical impulse passes through a neuron it causes a change in the electrical charge of the cell, allowing the nerve impulse to move along the neuron in a singular direction; from the dendrite to the axon. This impulse is able to travel through the spaces between neurons through chemical transmission across junctions known as synapses. The presynaptic cell, which carries the impulse, releases neurotransmitters (commonly the neurotransmitter glutamate is used to forge links between neurons). Neurotransmitters are small molecules that carry the signal secreted by vesicles from within the neuron that move by diffusion across the synapse to the receptors on the postsynaptic cell, which receives the impulse (National Institutes of Health, 2005). The more frequently the impulse fires the more forceful the effect it has on the neighbouring cell, and as this impulse leaves the axon of each neuron it travels along, it causes chemical change, in a process known as long term potentiation leaving the neuron more sensitive to stimulation from neighbouring cells. When these neurons are fired again in synchrony, the link that already exists between them is strengthened, and in this way a memory is formed.


However, although the formation of a memory seems highly specific and seemingly accurate, as mentioned previously our memories are susceptible to change due to their reconstructive nature, and we often are able to remember things in quite a different way to how they originally occurred. This is due to the presence of neural networks that exist in the brain known as schemas or schemata. These networks are patterns of connections between groups of neurons, which we use collectively as units of thought, forming, unconsciously, mental filters through which incoming information is often altered. We have schemas in our brains for most objects, animals and events; for example we will have a schema for a wedding either because it is formed through our own experience of attending weddings or from what we read or hear about them through others around us. The underlying problem with the existence of these structures is that the neural connections become so well established and fire so easily, that when we experience something that does not fit in with an existing schema, information becomes distorted to allow it to pass through these neural connections more efficiently as this increases the rate of memory consolidation (Squire, 2007).   


An example of this is found in Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (Richards J. Huer, 1999) where an experiment is undertaken using a pack of cards. Commonly, we would recognise the suits in a pack of cards through identifying red hearts and diamonds, and black spades and clubs. Our understanding of this colour scheme is learned through familiarity with packs of cards throughout our lives, and so a schema, which encapsulates this understanding, would be expected to exist in the brain. This theory was tested when a pack of cards was “doctored so that some hearts were black and spades red” (Richards J. Huer, 1999, p.22) and shown to some participants, who, when questioned about what they had witnessed later, believed they had seen red hearts and black spades as usual. By the time the original sensory information had passed into the short-term memory systems of the participants, the memory of what they had seen had been changed. This effect may be due to the fact that black hearts and red spades do not correspond with the participants’ existing schema for playing cards, and so they experienced difficulty processing it when the information taken in by their senses passed into the brain. Although the colour of the suits of cards was wrong, the shapes remained congruous with the existing schema, allowing the information to pass through the network it would usually follow. However, because of the strong associations built up between neurons within the schema based on what we would expect to see, the incoming information becomes distorted, as it is forced to comply with what we anticipated we would witness. This is an example of how schemas can manipulate memory, however, according to William Cohen (1993) there are numerous ways in which our memories are affected by these mental structures. (Waring)


Cohen stated that schemas affect our selection, abstraction, interpretation, normalization and retrieval of information when we reconstruct something from memory (Waring). Schemata enable us to easily discard details of a memory, retaining only the gist of the event, and are also units of thought that we adopt to fill in blanks in our memory. We fill in these ‘blanks’ through predicting what we believe may have happened by using the context and previous experience of a similar event from the past. Through such processes, false memories can be easily and frequently constructed when we try to recall an experience, an idea researched extensively by Elizabeth Loftus. This idea is acknowledged by Joe, in Enduring Love, as he admits, “we lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006, p.180) suggesting that our previous experiences and beliefs have a direct effect on how we perceive present occurrences. McEwan’s choice of the phrase “half-shared” here, used to describe Joe’s own perception, reaffirms this idea of a shared experience resulting in different memories and interpretations of events. For example, the balloon crash described in the opening chapter by Joe involved several people, and although we only hear Joe’s account of the crash, undoubtedly it would have been narrated differently from each of the witnesses. In a similar way, what McEwan depicts as an unimportant detail for Joe, such as brushing past a hedge, holds great significance for Jed as he claims it to have been touched “in a certain way, in a pattern that spelled a simple message” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006). This example supports the proposition that the mental state and preceding experiences of a narrator affect the way in which they relay an account of events, just as Charles in The Child in Time, draws upon memories of his youth to inform his behaviour, which regresses into a child-like state towards the end of the novel. However, in addition, this concept also brings to light the fact, that in order for us to understand a narrative ourselves, we too are reliant on a schema, which will essentially limit the way we perceive any book we read. Therefore, our own mental constructions disintegrate the barrier that exists between ourselves and the subjects of fiction, as both are bound by the selectivity of memory.


Holland argues that schemas “enable us to turn a mere text into a literary experience” (Holland, 2009, p.185) as they allow us to apply memories of past events onto what we read, and as stated in Enduring Love the act of storytelling is “deep in the nineteenth century soul” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006). In fact, our familiarity with the way we read literature itself has instilled a narrative schema in our brains, which acts as the framework for memories to be constructed around. We are so well accustomed with the structure of a story from a young age, that this same structure is instilled as a sort of expectation at the cellular level. The existence of a ‘narrative’ schema and an expectation for experiences to follow a story-like arrangement suggests when we experience a situation which does not follow this common pattern i.e. one with a beginning, a middle and appropriate ending, our brains may alter what we originally witnessed, or perhaps add information that allows a memory to fit more precisely into the expected pattern.


Stephen in The Child in Time displays evidence of using a schema when his daughter disappears, as he describes the “desperate memory” of a “figure in a dark coat behind Kate” (McEwan, The Child in Time, 1992, p.12). Of course, this figure could have been a product of his imagination, inserted into his memory falsely by the brain due to an expectation of how a kidnapper may look or be positioned due to knowledge of similar cases in the past. We build up these expected patterns to form schemas through experience, which suggests that the least exposure we have to a sensory experience of a particular event, the less skewed our memories would be when this particular event is experienced. For example, if Stephen had never heard of, read about, or witnessed a child being kidnapped before, his brain would not have expected to see this “dark figure,” and so, such a figure may never have featured in his memory of the event. When, instead, we have a great deal of experience of a particular event, for example attending a wedding, our memory of it will be highly selective, and any unique details of the experience may be filtered out as a memory is formed.


Larry Squire refers to schemata as “preexisting knowledge structures” (Squire, 2007). If it is the presence of schemas that account for the selectivity of our memories, it is possible that without this “preexisting knowledge” our memories would be more accurate. Such individuals who do not possess this prior knowledge will be those with fewer sensory experiences, and are likely to be children. To an extent, it could be Briony’s lack of sensory experience and knowledge in Atonement that leads her to falsely accuse Robbie of rape, as “her eyes confirmed the sum of all she knew and had recently experienced” (McEwan, Atonement, 2002, p. 169). It is only through her writing retrospectively that the older Briony realizes her mistakes and “fragmented recollection” (McEwan, Atonement, 2002, p. 173), because of her increased understanding and knowledge which is a result of the strengthening of neural connections in her brain as she has aged. This indicates that although a younger brain may record experiences as more accurate memories, the increased semantic information, which is acquired with age, is necessary to inform our episodic memories in order to reach valid conclusions of what we have witnessed.  Therefore, irrespective of whether we have a small amount or lots of prior knowledge of any object, event, or person, our memory still remains selective and we are incapable of remembering anything objectively.


Tim Adams writes in The Observer that Henry Perowne shares the “national paranoia” (Adams, 2005) of terrorist attacks, as Saturday is set shortly after the occurrence of 9/11. This ‘national’ memory is one that is triggered by the sighting of a burning plane, which is witnessed early in the novel by Henry himself and is registered as a threat due to this earlier memory of a similar event that has happened before. What Adams refers to as a ‘paranoia’ is perhaps an awareness, more accurately, of a threat that could challenge survival. In a salon interview with Dwight Garner in 1998, McEwan emphasised that this issue of survival is “constantly with us” (Childs, 2006, p. 106), suggesting that an unconscious motive of survival may affect which aspects of experience our brain retains in memory. This is a matter, according to McEwan, “of scientific inquiry, and now it’s central. It’s called human nature.” (Childs, 2006, p. 106). This all highlights the way in which external factors have an internal effect and that, perhaps, “believing is seeing” (McEwan, Enduring Love, 2006, p. 181). What we see, and consequently remember, are the things that inform our identity and not only do they have a fervent effect on the way we perceive all sensory experiences but they also “shape our literary experiences, from beginning to end.” (Holland, 2009, p. 274)


The selectivity of memory is a fixed and unalterable constituent of human nature, which both informs and hinders the way we interact with all aspects of our environment. The unreliability of what we perceive is a means of isolating each person as an individual, as it is the parts of experience that our brain chooses to retain in memory that imbue personality and identity. However, this partial and admittedly skewed view we each have of the world is collaborative and is a biological demonstration of human dependency. In the same way as a narrator in any fictional piece of literature is reliant on the accounts of other characters to complete a narrative, we too are reliant on each other to evade the flaws in memory.
















































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Human Resources:


Di Robilant. P, EPQ Supervisor and Head of Italian, The Cheltenham Ladies’ College, UK


Groes. S, English Lecturer and Critic, Roehampton University, UK


Holland. N, The PsyArt Foundation, University of Florida, USA


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Mech. I, Head of Biology, The Cheltenham Ladies’ College, UK


Morris.R.G.M, Professor of Neuroscience, Edinburgh University, UK


Taylor. K, Department of Genetics, Oxford University, UK


Wintle. J, Head of Professional Guidance, The Cheltenham Ladies’ College, UK




To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Imogene Ash "How is the selective nature of Memory explored by Ian McEwan and in Biology?". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 22, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 18, 2012, Published: March 19, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Imogene Ash