Neurophilosophy has alerted me to the fact that National Geographic magazine has a fantastic cover feature on memory, forgetting, amnesia and hyper-recall in this month’s issue. It’s both freely available online and is accompanied by an interactive 3D brain map of the key memory structures.
The article discusses some of the extremes of memory that have been reported in the neuropsychology literature and describes an encounter both with EP, a patient with profound amnesia after suffering an HSE infection, and AJ, a woman who seemingly has an almost ‘perfect’ memory for her past.
As well as tackling some of the neuroscience of memory, the piece does an excellent job of communicating the characters and frustrations of the people with these remarkable memories
It also contains some wonderful asides about the place memory has in our society, and how that has changed significantly since the advent of technologies such as disposable writing tools that have allowed us to artificially ‘extend’ our memories.
Before that time, the act of remembering was, in itself, a hugely significant skill and quite literally in some cases, the stuff of legend.
It’s hard for us to imagine what it must have been like to live in a culture before the advent of printed books or before you could carry around a ballpoint pen and paper to jot notes. “In a world of few books, and those mostly in communal libraries, one’s education had to be remembered, for one could never depend on having continuing access to specific material,” writes Mary Carruthers, author of The Book of Memory, a study of the role of memory techniques in medieval culture. “Ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories.”
Thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, for example, was celebrated for composing his Summa Theologica entirely in his head and dictating it from memory with no more than a few notes. The Roman philosopher Seneca the Elder could repeat 2,000 names in the order they’d been given to him. A Roman named Simplicius could recite Virgil by heart‚Äîbackward. A strong memory was seen as the greatest of virtues since it represented the internalization of a universe of external knowledge. Indeed, a common theme in the lives of the saints was that they had extraordinary memories.
After Simonides’ discovery, the art of memory was codified with an extensive set of rules and instructions by the likes of Cicero and Quintilian and in countless medieval memory treatises. Students were taught not only what to remember but also techniques for how to remember it. In fact, there are long traditions of memory training in many cultures. The Jewish Talmud, embedded with mnemonics‚Äîtechniques for preserving memories‚Äîwas passed down orally for centuries. Koranic memorization is still considered a supreme achievement among devout Muslims. Traditional West African griots and South Slavic bards recount colossal epics entirely from memory.