Does a history of ‘memory’ even have a proper subject matter? After all, anything may be said to contain memories if it can be used to access information about something else by virtue of having a means of registering some prior contact. Even if we confine ourselves to psychology, the meaning of ‘memory’ is not rendered much more manageable. In this context, the word points to a range of accounts – in equal measure intriguing and unsubstantiated – of the mind’s self-organising powers, which differ over matters of capacity, process, reliability and conscious control. Alison Winter has written a set of readable vignettes that makes these issues compelling without doing much to resolve them.
Winter begins with Hugo Münsterberg, America’s first celebrity psychologist. When William James invited Münsterberg, a graduate of Germany’s premier experimental psychology lab, to organise something similar at Harvard in 1892, he got more than he had bargained for. James imagined that harnessing introspection to apparatus would enable individuals to become