Monday, June 20, 2011

On Memory...and Books

Think of the person you know who has the best memory. Can they quote from hundreds of books? Do they wow you with what can only be their photographic memory? It may be hard for modern people to fully comprehend, but the great memories of today can hardly compare to those of ancient times.

As the book I am reading now states (the following quote and all other quotes here are taken from The Discoverers by Daniel Boorsten) -- "Before the printed book, Memory ruled daily life..." Memory, both from individuals and communities, was the common means of passing knowledge on through the generations. People in those far off times had to intentionally cultivate an incredible memory in order to memorize amounts of information that would astound modern people.

"The elder Seneca (c. 55 B.C.-A.D. 37), a famous teacher of rhetoric, was said to be able to repeat long passages of speeches he had heard only once many years before. He would impress his students by asking each member of a class of two hundred to recite lines of poetry, and then he would recite all the lines they had quoted--in reverse order, from last to first."

Before the days of printing, "a highly developed Memory was needed by the entertainer, the poet, the singer, the physician, the lawyer, and the priest." We all know about the great ancient epics, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, which were passed down orally for many centuries.

Even when the first writings became more common, Memory remained the primary means in use by lawyers and judges or anyone wishing to quote from the scrolls or manuscripts of the times. With no page numbers or other markings, it was too inconvenient to attempt to locate the necessary parts of text, often rolled up in scrolls dozens or even hundreds of feet long.

After the printing press was developed, books evolved into "an aid, and sometimes a substitute, for Memory." It was Socrates, two millennia earlier, who had first "lamented the effects of writing itself on Memory..." The more accurate and widespread the book became, the less important became the cultivation of a good memory.

The great anachronism of our age is Islam, which still sees as ideal for any Muslim child the full memorization of the Koran. A lesser one is the incredible use of memory of the elite chess grandmasters, who must memorize hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of positions, tactics, strategies, and lines of openings, middle games, and endgames.

The reason I decided to write this was because the (far more detailed) story from The Discoverers reminded me of some thoughts I had been having regarding the effects on memory of the internet age. If the rise of books had been a death knell for developing memory as a tool, how much worse is the internet, which in effect serves as a substitute memory for the world? Regardless of issues of accuracy, almost all data is now placed onto the internet. Google and similar search engines become the key to accessing this modern day Memory.

And what effect on memory will come of the decline of leisure reading? Reading, which long served to teach and broaden the minds of educated people, is clearly on the decline amongst (primarily) young males, at least when it comes to spending long hours and days poring over long books for leisure purposes. Now kids turn to email, blogs, text messages, and tweets as primary substitutes for the hours once spent reading. Are we going to reach a point where the average person feels they no longer need to have much 'data' stored within their minds, since they can access it at will on the internet? Will high quality writing and the desire to enjoy such writing decline as people become used to the shorthand of modern communications? When 'lol' and 'rofl' take over for actual knowledge of good English, what does it say of our future?

It is hard to say exactly how much impact the internet will have on the area of memory, but my belief is that the coming of the internet age will eventually have nearly as great an effect on memory as the invention of the printing press.


  1. That seems reasonable. At the same time, I would contend people have a much larger knowledge base comprised of smaller nuggets of information. Thus they can know there's more information to be had on any given topic by recognizing key points and go to a source to expand on that information.

  2. What Joseph said. And now people with little access to knowledge, in terms of personal memory or large numbers of books, now have the world at their fingertips.

    What they do with that world could be interesting...

  3. Please note that I am not judging against the internet. While it has both good and bad qualities, it is as inevitable as books were, so I am not mourning it so much as wondering where it will take us. I read what so many viewed as the impact of books on memory, and it struck me that the internet was just as huge a game changer.

    I believe that once mind/data interfaces become a reality, it will have the largest single impact on humans of any invention, at least eventually. I am always a long-term thinker, while most people I know tend to view history in smaller chunks.

  4. You got triple posted on this. Here, the forum, and on Nathan's blog.:D

    Yes, the old bards memorized everything -- songs, history, stories, morals. I don't think it is a problem having things written down in terms of memory, but I do worry about our society depending on electronic devices to store our history. Think about are all digital now, books are going digital, song recordings, speeches, everything. If we ever lose the power to fire up our computers we are going to suffer a big loss of data, IMO.

  5. L.G., a nice big EMP would really do some serious damage! It was cool of Nathan to pick out my post, but I worry that people won't understand that I didn't purposely craft the post for his front page (I might have crafted it a bit better if I had known) and that they are misinterpreting what I said as being negative toward the internet. I love the internet and wouldn't want to live without it. I just believe there are societal consequences that won't be easily seen for a few centuries.

  6. The internet is amazing. Don't know what I'd do without it at this point.

    More disturbing than internet, is the schools wanting to stop teaching handwriting to children. What? This stuns me.

  7. It's a question of what people choose to memorize. Think of how many people know hundreds of quotes from TV shows, scripts of cartoons they haven't seen since childhood, or thousands of pop songs from adolescence.

  8. I was going to write a poignant reply to this blog post but I don't remember what I was going to say.

  9. I was going to comment but Micheal stole my reply.