By Hilde Ostby & Ylva Ostby
Review by E. Kirshe
Diving for Seahorses is a collaboration between sisters: the writer and editor Hilde Ostby and the clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Ylva Ostby; a necessary team, as this book artfully explores the history of human knowledge regarding memory.
The book takes its name from the hippocampus. As explained in the first pages, an Italian doctor named it the hippocampus (Latin for horse sea monster) back in 1564. This is the seahorse we’re diving for. This metaphor is stretched throughout the book (sometimes a little too thin, but it works).
This was an overall fascinating read. Anyone who has ever had an interest in learning more about the human brain, and of course specifically memory, will enjoy this book.
Hilde is a beautiful writer though at times some of her words may have been lost in translation and there are instances that read too much like a textbook rather than a nonfiction work. There are wholly artistic portrayals of experiments- like when recreating a 1970s experiment to see if memory was tied to location by diving underwater and memorizing lists of words. “We will see with our own eyes how their brains have worked, linking words and seaweed and cold water together into the same network. But we’re still standing on the pier, while the February cold eats away into our woolen underwear. It’s anything but magical. (p.27)” She puts in magical descriptions while really bringing you into time and place. This serves her well whether talking about the present or taking the reader back to early renaissance discoveries about the brain.
The clinical information is sometimes presented, well, clinically, and that was really my main complaint. There were points where I was really invested in the book and the anecdotes being presented– Henry Molaison’s life story was insane– and then they would dip into paragraphs that would sound more at home in a scientific journal, as though they were presenting research rather than telling a story. I understand that it is clinical information, and it would likely be less worthwhile without Ylva’s analysis, but since they were working together it could have been cleaned up. However, the overly dry sections were few and far between and Hilde has a talent for making even the decades (and in some cases, centuries) old stories seem present and tangible.
They cover a lot of ground in this fairly slim novel and all of it was truly intriguing. Despite the clinical parts, they engage with many people who aren’t scientists- like, novelists, and memory masters- which really drives home that the human brain isn’t just “science” it’s you. There’s nothing more gripping than finding out what makes us tick.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Diving for Seahorses is available now from Greystone Books.