Ancient Greeks and Memory

It is commonly believed that ancient people had much better memories than we have today. This makes a great deal of sense to me. When you have no books to reference, no Google to search, no pen and paper with which to jot down a note, you better be really good at remembering.

This explains how great lengthy epics could survive oral transmission for centuries. It explains why in his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato has some criticism for this new-fangled writing everyone is talking about. He says that literacy, far from making us smarter, will make us less wise.

Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.

Plato is saying that if you can write things down, your memory will suffer. Given that context, consider a Greek named Simonides of Ceos. Simonides was a poet who lived around 600 BC. There is an interesting story about him. Although the veracity of the story is in dispute, whether or not it happened in exactly this way is not germane to the point I want to make. The antiquity of the story is not in question, since it appears in the writing of Cicero.

The story begins with Simonides being hired by a Thessalian nobleman named Scopas to write a poem in his honor. The final work included extensive praise for the twin gods Castor and Pollux. Scopas, thinking he received only half the credit in the poem, told Simonides he was only going to pay half the fee and if the poet wanted the other half, he should collect it from Castor and Pollux.

Later that evening, Simonides was at a banquet and word was sent to him that two young men were outside looking for him. He went to the door and didn’t see anyone, so he went outside to look around for them. While he was outside, the roof of the house caved in and killed everyone inside. The implication of the story was that Castor and Pollux, knowing of the imminent collapse of the roof, had come calling with the purpose of saving Simonides’ life as their payment for his poem.

This is the part of the story that I find interesting. Although the bodies of the dead were mangled and unrecognizable, even by their families, the poet Simonides was able to close his eyes and recall where everyone was sitting at the banquet.

The story is recounted as an object lesson on how to remember large groups of items. By associating them with a physical location, the mind can retain a great deal of information. There is a technique you can try to demonstrate this. Get someone to write down a random twenty-digit number. Then imagine a walk through your house or a place you know very well. Walk through the house in your mind, from room to room, mentally placing a single digit of your twenty-digit number in each room. By doing this, you can recall the number by simply walking back through the house, each location triggering your memory.

Whether this story happened or not I do not know, but the point is that Simonides’ ability to recall the names of everyone at a large banquet, and where they were sitting, was deemed completely possible and used as a lesson to demonstrate a practical skill.

All of this to say that two thousand years ago, people likely had much better memories than we have now. Of course, we are still capable of this kind of memory; we simply don’t train our brains to do this particular task.

If you went back in time and talked to these people, to Simonides and to Plato, and you told them that there would be a day in the future where people will have access to all of the information in the world through books and the Internet, but that the cost of this was a substantially lessened memory, I believe they would have said, “No thank you. That seems creepy. My memory is a big part of who I am and I have no desire to trade any of it away.”

This is an example of how technology changes how we think. How it changes us. While we believe we are better off than Plato and Simonides, they may disagree. I expect that as technology continues to change us, our descendants will believe they have made good tradeoffs along the way, even if those same tradeoffs make us uncomfortable to contemplate today.

About Byron Reese

Author, speaker, technologist, entrepreneur, historian and world traveler, Byron examines the intersection of history, technology and the future, and enjoys sharing his keen perspectives for solving many of our global problems.

Publisher of Gigaom and author of “Infinite Progress: How Technology and the Internet Will End Ignorance, Disease, Hunger, Poverty, and War,” Byron is currently working on his upcoming book “Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity,” set to be published in 2017 by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Whether it be articles, interviews or keynotes, Byron brings his experience as a technologist, passion for history, and proven business acumen to illuminate how today’s technology can solve many of our biggest global challenges.

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