Memory

What actors and orators in the classical world knew about the quirks of the brain

Quite a bit, apparently. Recent research suggests that the same part of the brain which helps us see space and navigate through it also guides us through the thinking process. As we remember and reason, we’re taking a spatial tour of memories and possibilities.

This is precisely how classical and medieval scholars, actors, and orators carried knowledge with them. They would meticulously construct memory palaces by memorizing spatial locations, like cathedrals, areas, palaces, and parts of cities, which they would then mentally place powerful images in to help them remember facts and ideas.

It’s easy to think about the power of such locations when we think about our earliest memories. You may not remember what was on TV in a given year of your childhood, but I’ll bet you remember what the TV looked like and where in the room it was placed. Your whole childhood home, or series of homes, is probably indelibly imprinted on your mind. This same fantastic staying power of visual memory can be knowingly harnessed. In the era before paper and Google, it was probably how troubadours memorized long songs on a single hearing, or how orators could speak for hours on end using a predetermined sequence of ideas.

We can’t enter the mansions of memory any more, thanks to information tech in all its forms, but it seems like we’re hardwired to want to be there.

Anybody out there use a memory palace or anything like it?

When our devices don’t let us forget, we can’t move on.

As the record of our daily written communication is fused with our phones, something sinister is happening to our memories of other people, especially those who have died.

William Gibson has described information technology as a form of prosthetic memory, and I agree with him. Written language exists as much to store the past as it does to communicate the present. Accounting records may actually have been the first use of written language, which would make extending human memory writing’s primal function.  Inscriptions to memorialize the glory of the powerful dead followed soon after.

Luke O’Neil recently recounted the strangeness of living with his late father’s last text messages. They record banalities, but also invite him to further communication with the dead every day, hovering just at the edge of his attention, like an advertisement. What he and his father tapped out without a thought have, by proximity alone, been asked to bear the weight of mourning, and they are doing a poor job of it.

We have always used written communication to remember the dead. We have had letters and books and tombstone inscriptions, but these are all deliberately chosen and set aside from daily life. Before digital communication, we could choose to remember our dead in a way that was true and relevant. In contrast, our accidental digital memorials are shoved at us every day by the grim mechanics of our technology. We live forever in the horror of Emily Dickinson’s vision of banality at the last moment: “I heard a fly buzz when I died.”

I have written elsewhere about the need to relieve ourselves from the burden of perfect digital memory, and how Marshall McLuhan got it right when he said:

“The future will be an electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’.”

Our prosthetic memory is attached to us at too many nerve endings. When we can remember everything, memory is simply noise. We burn out on memory and, by extension, the present moment, which is no less than life itself.