A Weaker Memory?

Since Plato, perhaps even earlier, there have been fears regarding the absolute benefits of writing. Postman (1992) recounts the story of “The Judgement of Thamus” whereby Thamus issues dire warnings regarding his beliefs surrounding writing. As with all changes and technologies, inherently there are benefits and costs associated. Theuth considered writing to be a solution. It would improve memory and wisdom. Thamus considered the opposite to be true. Writing would in fact “be a burden to society” (cited by Postman, 1992) as memory would not be practiced and true wisdom would not be gained.

Today we can look back and consider was King Thamus correct in his warning that writing would weaken memory? If he was correct, does it truly matter? Have we lost the true wisdom that he referred to? In order to better understand Thamus’ concerns, one must first review ‘memory’ and wisdom in a primary oral culture prior to conception or introduction. How did oral cultures acquire, recall and pass on their information?

In his book ‘Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word’, Walter Ong (1982) investigates the characteristics of both primary oral cultures and that of literate or primary literate cultures. Oral cultures are often thought of as occurring during ‘simpler’ times where the focus of everyday life was that of survival rather than the more complex world of today. Oral cultures have long relied on memory aides including repetition, proverbs, stories and mnemonic devices in order to recall ideas and pass information to others in their culture. (Ong, 1982)

Ong (1982) repeatedly gives examples of oral cultures using rhythm as a memory aid. He states that rhythm is not just occasionally but incessantly used, commenting that without the aides, memory or recall cannot be retained. As cultures became more advanced and sophisticated, the amount of information increased. Rhythm as a memory aid was no longer adequate and it became obvious that there was a need to ‘maintain’ information. Even using additional aids and ‘group memory’, too much information needed to be retained, therefore writing became an important improvement. As Ong indicated, one of the first forms of writing was that of lists. (Ong, 1982)

According to O’Donnell, writing equals power and allows for accurate information. Writing allows the author to choose the words in advance, reflect, and build upon them (O’Donnell, 2007). It also allows society to advance from hunter-gatherer needs to a more modern society, expanding knowledge and understandings at almost exponential rates. Our ‘memories’ began to be held externally, either through print or digital devices. ‘Memories’ can be accessed to suit our needs or purposes. As O’Donnell notes, it promotes inclusiveness (O’Donnell, 2007).

As O’Donnell (1998) points out, print allows for the expectation that the words of an author may be found again. However, with the speed in which society’s understandings are expanding, theories are supported or refuted, and new ideas are presented, it becomes increasingly important to be able to rely on the external memory of digital storage for quick and easy access. But caution must be taken when reading ancient works, as standards have continuously evolved into today’s accepted norms. (O’Donnell, 2007)

As we have increased our memory capabilities via external memory sources, including tallies, lists, texts, and now digital technology, we have also increased our ability to be more experienced and cognizant of the world (and beyond) around us. Ong implies that oral cultures had stronger general memory capabilities (using memory aides – mnemonics, repetitions, rhythm) and group memories but not verbatim memory. He supports his ideas by pointing out that substantial information such as “a singer [producing] on demand a narrative consisting of thousands of dactylic hexameter lines” as in the Iliad and the Odyssey text, could not be repeated “unless he had them memorized word for word?” (Ong, 1982, p57-8). Although it is not his point, we know that many individuals have strong memorizing capabilities (consider savants, eidetic memory) and those whose profession require them to memorize “lines” such as signers and actors, strengthen these abilities with continued practice. If they are not able to do this, they will probably not be successful in that career for long.

Ong cites that “memory skill is understandably a valued asset in oral cultures” (Ong, 1982, p57) but notes repeatedly that oral verbatim repetition generally does not occur, and there is little concern with abstract concepts. Whereas “in a literate culture verbatim memorization is commonly done from a text” (Ong, 1982, 57), but generally it is the understanding of a concept which is most valuable. Writing allows learning to occur, as well as critical thinking and expansion of skills to happen. As Ong points out, it is the ‘nature’ of the memory which is important for both cultures (1982).

One of the most common educational memory aides are notes, and although brief, they still serve their purpose. Depending on the individual’s memory, the explicitness and depth of the note will dictate its effectiveness. Although recordings are not ‘text’ per say, this technology also allows for the same principles to occur – the technology allows for retrieval and sharing of precise information.

Writing allows ‘memories’ and ideas to be shared but not bound by time or space. Because of this capability, most people in today’s literate world don’t rely on memory strategies for most sharing of ideas and information. As O’Donnell points out, “the words of other times and places, frozen forever in unchanging form, should live on indefinitely, in ever-accumulating geometrically-expanding heaps…[and that we would be] interpreting the frozen words of people long dead…says something important about the culture that was created using writing and print… This culture is contingent, malleable, and far from being the final form of human organization of knowledge.” (O’Donnell, 2007, p2). Writing allows us to access the memories and ideas of all authors, not just our own or our ‘group’s’.

As Ong points out, it is hard to be certain of verbatim memory in an oral culture, as there is no way to verify with recordings or original speech. Ong has found evidence that most oral cultures drop or change “memories” due to the needs of the society or that which are no longer relevant (Ong, 1982). Although rote learning may serve the purpose to be able to quickly and accurately recall information in order to learn the next step, several studies suggest that rote memory is only surface knowledge and is not utilized to distinguish concepts from generalized knowledge. (Brown, Aoshima, Bolen, Chia & Kohyama, 2007; Daz-lefebvre, 2004)

Based on the above, I believe that writing not only improves memory but also provides greater wisdom as information is ‘correct’ and not based on recollections of knowledge. External memory perhaps even strengthens personal memory as when it is needed, it is easily accessible, reviewed, and more internal connections can be made.



Biakolo, E. A. (1999). On the theoretical foundations of orality and literacy. Research in African Literatures, 30(2), 42-65.

Brown, M. B., Aoshima, M., Bolen, L. M., Chia, R., & Kohyama, T. (2007). Cross-Cultural Learning Approaches in Students from the USA, Japan and Taiwan. School Psychology International, 28(5), 592-604.

Daz-lefebvre, R. (2004). Multiple Intelligences, Learning for Understanding, and Creative Assessment: Some Pieces to the Puzzle of Learning. Teachers College Record, 106(1), 49-57.

O’Donnell, J.J. (1998.) Avatars of the word: From papyrus to cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 44-49

O’Donnell, J.J. (2007.) Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. retrieved from: http://web.archive.org/web/20070204034556/http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/virtual.html

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.


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