The memory palace

As we increasingly augment our minds I sometimes pause to reflect on the trade-offs we are making. What powers does the unaugmented mind possess? What do we give up when we outsource our memories to the collective electronic mind? In Dilemma of a Cyborg Carina Chocano writes:

For everything that’s gained by our ability to store and maintain more information than ever before, something is lost that has to do with texture, context and association. The science journalist Joshua Foer, author of “Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,” said in a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts that people once “invested in their memories, they cultivated them. They studiously furnished their minds. They remembered. Today, of course, we’ve got books and computers and smartphones to hold our memories for us. We’ve outsourced our memories to external devices. The result is that we no longer trust our memories. We see every small, forgotten thing as evidence that they’re failing us altogether.” As we store more and more of what makes us us outside of ourselves, he said, “we’ve forgotten how to remember.”

The mnemonic techniques rediscovered in Moonwalking with Einstein were first popularized by Cicero. You bind memories to images, and then you bind the images to a path through the rooms and hallways of a “memory palace.”

Here’s another technique that isn’t so well known. I attribute it to Carlton Fisk by way of a story I heard from the baseball writer Roger Angell. Somewhere in the 2000s, Angell asked Fisk to reflect on what had most altered the game of baseball since his playing days. The salaries? The drugs?

No. The game-changer, Fisk said, was instant replay. His game-winning 1975 home run is one of most-remembered moments in all of sports. The video of that event is one of the most-watched clips. You might think that Carlton Fisk has seen that clip a million times. But in fact, he told Roger Angell, he never watches it. That’s because he doesn’t want to overwrite the original memory, which is his alone, recorded from a point of view that was his alone, with a memory we all share that was recorded by a camera up in the stands.

We can’t do away with instant replay, nor do we want to. But it’s worth remembering how to experience life, even when we know it’s being recorded externally, as if the only cameras are the ones in our heads.

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8 thoughts on “The memory palace

  1. The grandfather of a friend of mine once complained, “Everything’s like scripture these days.” He was talking specifically about people listening obsessively to slowed-down recordings of solos by Hendrix and Clapton so that they could learn to imitate them note by note, but I wonder what happens when everything can be fact-checked, and when every deviation, however slight, from the “official” version of a song or story can be detected?

  2. Funny you should post this today as has an interesting article on a related topic, Learning:

    It’s an interview of Robert Bjork, director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab. Total Recall, Memory, Learning all are interestingly intertwined and not always the mortal enemies of one another. Additionally the electronic means of ‘remembering’ adds a whole other layer into the mix of what Robert Bjork is specifically studying.


    James Smith

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