Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it . . .


. . . and those who cannot remember where they left their keys are condemned to search for them.

There's been a renaissance in the last few decades in memory. We human beings have been externalizing our memories to an increasing extent for centuries. Every advance in media -- handwriting, cartography, movable type and printing, phonograph, typewriter, film, audiotape, word processing, videotape, Web, mobile, etc. -- has resulted in the loss of human memory abilities. We live, more or less, in a kind of perpetual amnesia. To give a simple example, folks used to have to know many phone numbers -- now they're all on our phones, along with photos of places we were to busy photographing to actually remember, experiences we were to busy recording to actually have. Many of us don't even know our physical surroundings as we commute to work. To go further back, poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey were largely composed so that singers and bards could keep them in memory and perform them in public without working from written scripts which were virtually impossible to produce.

Frances Yates of the University of London and Mary Carruthers at NYU did groundbreaking research into the forgotten history of memory. In both the classical and medieval eras, a great deal was known about memory as an art, as a body of techniques. Several Greeks and Romans wrote of these techniques, which were well known in antiquity and considered to be part of the art of rhetoric, useful for bards, writers, and statesmen alike. Many medieval scholars further refined these ideas, so there exist a whole literature of memory improvement that is being rediscovered today.

The key for these arts is the Method of Loci. All valid arts and techniques rely upon nature inasmuch as they perfect and modify nature to serve human ends, and the art of memory is no different. It relies on natural qualities of the mind: that, by our nature, we tend to have a natural memory for images, odors, emotions, the absurd, the obscene, the horrific, that we can create these either from perception or from imagination, that we can mentally situate an image in any imagined or perceived location, and thus we can commit anything to memory, e.g., a list of all the Presidents, 50 topics for a planned public speech, an epic poem, etc., by using a set of techniques that translate what we're committing to memory into vivid images. These are stored in imagined locations (loci) and can be easily recalled by walking through that memory palace and "seeing" everything that is there. The very word "topic" is from the Greek word topos, which means "place."

The key to memory always is in the original experience, not in the recall. That is, 99 percent of the work is done when forming the memory. The person has to pay close attention to the things being memorized initially. During recall, there's not much that can be done to improve memory.

Joshua Foer's Moonwalking With Einstein highlights the extreme of memory work, a competition that is, in some weird ways, similar to a marathon, or a competitive eating meet, or a chess match. Contestants try to push the art further and further, doing things like memorizing a randomly shuffled deck of cards in under 30 seconds, or a long poem composed for the occasion in a limited amount of time. The book is filled with wonderful digressions on neuroscience, culture, and history.

Plato wrote that all knowledge was recollection (anamnesis). Both in antiquity and early modernity there was a great emphasis on memory as key to real understanding, in literature and education more broadly. Instead of originality, the goal was to comprehend and recollect what had already been known and to let it form the character and the mind. Thus, someone like Thomas Aquinas committed reams of philosophy to memory. Because manuscripts were rare, so he could not simply pull out of a library (much less the Internet) everything that Averroes had written on any given topic. He had to fully internalize whatever he cited. The way people read grew around this. One inhabited a book, lived it, visualized it, consumed it. ("Web Surfing" and "Channel Surfing," on the other hand, are of more recent vintage.)

We're living in a period of a kind of amnesia, of cultural ignorance. A cubicle space for a modern workplace is usually designed so as to be completely reproducible, repetitive, nondescript. It's an architecture that by its nature induces amnesia. I've been working on a bunch of memory projects, and going through some books on technique. (I just finished all the popes, and they go and lay another one on me!) I'm more interested in being able to use this in daily life than in competition, but it's fun and a workout for the imagination.

Is memory work something conservative should be concerned with? Should we commit the works of Jefferson and Madison (or our leftist interlocutors, e.g., Marx and Keynes) to memory, so as to better able to defend ourselves and anticipate arguments?

And are you constantly trying to remember where you left your keys? (I am.)
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