Sunday, March 06, 2011

Mnemosyne, human memory, and the wonder of our technological memory

1987-08-D-0024 by martin_kalfatovic
1987-08-D-0024 a photo by martin_kalfatovic on Flickr.
The Washington Post had a book review (by Marie Arana) of Joshua Foer's Moonwalking With Einstein, which, from the review seems a shallow paen to the idea of being able to memorize the names of Presidents, State capitals, and other parlor tricks.

Rather than the random storage of bits and bytes the Foer seems to glorify (how many cards can you memorize?). I choose to honor and celebrate Mnemosyne, the human memory that creates new things.

Mnemosyne, of course, was the personification of memory in Greek mythology. She was a Titaness (daughter of Gaia and Uranus) and most importantly, mother of the nine Muses. In short, the wellspring from which spring all that is creative.

The critics of the aide-mémoire are, of course legion. Plato, with his legendary distrust of shadows and symbols, give the classic diatribe against human (or even godly) inventions that will help humans to remember:
But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. (Plato, Phaedrus). Emphasis added.
I, for one, revel in the memory aids that use those decreasing powers of my personal memory to make connections, to make new thoughts, and not spend too much mental space on mere facts. The human created aids that let me call up Plato with a few clicks and not rely on imperfect memory; the tools which let me instantly find a picture of the Colossi of Memnon, the tools that let me actually write and publish this and not rely on bards to memorize, and pass it on. Am I being tiresome? Am I lacking the reality of wisdom? Is this but the semblance of truth, or is it truth?

(Which isn't to say that I don't have the entire lyrics to the "Gilligan's Island Theme" safely tucked away in my head or that I made my daughter memorize the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities today!).

And, FYI, the picture above is one of the Colossi of Memnon, often associated with Theuth.


1 said...

not Plato, but Socrates, and only reciting from memory what he had heard, if we can trust Plato's writings

Martin said...

True, but so hard to separate Socrates from Plato in the dialogs, no?