Friday, April 11, 2008

Memory: computer and human

I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you. --Psalm 119:11.

The BBC reports that a new technology for computer memory may increase it a hundred fold over present capacities. Perhaps. IBM may create a hand-held device that can hold half a million songs. This is sure to bring about world peace. (Are there half a million recorded songs worth listening to?)

But what about human memory? It seems to shrink as computer "memory" expands. A Somali is taught to memorize her genealogy going back dozens of generations. I don't know any of my great grandfathers' first name. Do you know the first name of any of your great grandfathers?

How much reality do we carry inside of us, in our souls? What do we commit to memory? The ancient Greeks worried that inscription would erode memory. If it is written down, why internalize it? Primary orality requires vast memorization. Literacy requires less, yet does not necessarily debase memory. C.S. Lewis had a prodigious literary memory (due, I believe, to a photographic memory). Some rabbis shortly after the time of Jesus could consult the Hebrew Bible in written form, but memorized it in its entirety. Think of it. But is was easier for them. They didn't have television.

What have we memorized--accidentally or intentionally? Do you remember the five main characters of "Friends"? Do you know the five freedoms of the First Amendment? Which is more important to know? Do you know what's on your iPod? Do you know what's in your Bible (if you have one)? Have your tried to know, tried to remember?

Remember to remember.


Susan said...

There are four great-grandfathers by the time you get to "great" on the family tree (being the fathers of each of your parent's parents) On my mother's side: August William Kruse, and Lewis Loewe. On my father's side:Daniel Fielding Tew, and John Arnold.

The invention of the computer and electronic "memory" has provided a unique opportunity for us all to literally lose our minds! With one lightning bolt, one spill of coffee over the laptop, one power failure...
You wont even be able to recall the phone number to call your best friend (it was 'in the phone') to lament the loss.

Our culture doesn't value the telos of memorization (internalization of content in transformative ways); it values only possession of data. It's greed and the lust for more, pure and simple.

Don't worry, though. Soon, when our own brains are limp and desolate, you'll be able to have your computer microchip embedded in your head. You can download that 1/2 million songs and with the press of a button, you might be able to sing them too.

Doug Groothuis said...


Good comments. I should have written that we have more than one great grandfather. So, I fixed that.

Luke said...

"That's a great post. Here's a website on developing
photographic memory. Check out the tips that they offer. They worked pretty well for me. It's at"

Jim Pemberton said...

Memory is a funny thing. My short-term memory is horrible. I have a tough time looking at a phone number and keying it in without looking back to it. my long-term memory is pretty good, however. As a musician I'm awful at remembering lyrics, but my mind is a steel trap for remembering music - not note-for-note, but such that I could sit down at the piano and reconstruct the chord progression and melody from my "internal ear".

I've never seen "Friends" and have no desire to know the first character from it. I remember many of the names from my genealogy having studied it. I find it difficult to remember Bible passages word-for-word, but I can generally tell you context, author, audience and logical usage (within the flow of thought) from memory of many of the more important passages including some of the key root words in Greek and Hebrew.

Computers may retain vast amounts of information with great quantifiable precision, but the constructive use of that information remains yet in the intelligence (analysis, synthesis, evaluation, etc.) of the astonishing minds given to us by our Creator.