Brain Food #494

Memory, forgetting, and externalising

Thoughts of the day

If you tend to forget what you’ve read or watched, you are not alone. The 'forgetting curve’, a concept coined by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, describes how information disappears from memory over time, especially if there is no attempt to recall or retain it. The internet and our devices have become a form of memory outside of ourselves, while our rate of consumption of information has never been higher, making it impossible to retain everything we come across.

Plato was one of the first thinkers to point out that ‘externalising’ our memory would mean to lose it. Discussing the discovery of letters in Phaedrus, he writes:

“And so it is that you by reason of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

Ironically, none of us would have been familiar with Plato’s mind today if it hadn’t been for writing. That is also why storytelling is an important part of living, and form of self-preservation. As Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Whether it is in the form of a journal, a photograph, or a conversation with a loved one, our memory can exist beyond us, our inherent forgetfulness ensuring that we are not forgotten.


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