Sun, Jul 17, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Memory systems endure in a time of forgetting-made-easy

By Jack Rosenthal  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

This might well be called the year of memory. Already, I'm able to click on the icon that marks the Find function on my little pocket Treo. Can't think of a friend's last name? I enter "Myrna," and in a second the screen invites me to choose Davis, Greenberg or Lewis. Can't remember the name of a book by Jonathan Spence? This time, it's Google to the rescue: three clicks gives the answer: The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. And that's just the start.

Apple has just released Tiger, its latest operating system, which includes Spotlight. Just as Google searches the World Wide Web, this new feature uses a word or phrase to find a document inside your computer. Microsoft is at work on a new operating system, Longhorn, with similar capability. Such powerful assists to memory raise a question never before conceivable: Why struggle to remember anything?

For eons, from the beginning of language, people had no choice but to remember. When to plant, how to hunt, what was poison: these were matters of life and death. Knowledge about them had to be passed down, by word of mouth, as did great narratives like the Iliad and the Odyssey. This dependence on oral tradition put a premium on mnemonics, devices like rhyme, rhythm, acronyms and other systematic ways to help sages and storytellers remember.

It took millennia before writing provided a secure way to preserve the oral tradition, and even then, mnemonics thrived. From classical times forward, orators have remembered the major points of speeches by using the "method of loci." One visualizes walking through the rooms of a "memory palace" and associates the next point to be addressed with each successive room or tapestry. This method is probably why we now use the expression "in the first place."

Then and now, preschoolers have learned the alphabet with rhyming song. Middle schoolers remember the order of the planets with the mnemonic sentence, "Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest" (where Earth is "t" for Terra and "a" denotes the asteroid belt). Male medical students once identified the eight wrist bones (navicular, lunate, triquetrum, pisiform, multangular greater, multangular lesser, capitate, hamate) by snickering: "Never lower Tillie's pants. Mother might come home."

Enter electronic technology. A 1.5kg laptop can now store and retrieve a tonne of data. People who once remembered the phone numbers of a dozen friends now just push a programmed cellphone button. Why bother remembering the clever poem that tells the value of pi to 21 places (3.141592653589793238462) when you can look it up online and get a virtual googol of places? Why is it necessary in this information age to remember most things, except maybe your user name and password(s)?

Yet mnemonics are surviving, even flourishing in the online world. is only one example of how Web sites have latched onto mnemonics as ways to teach SAT words to high-school students or definitions of crimes to law students. Mnemonics also endure for a host of other reasons. Electronic-search marvels are of no use to billions in the Third World without online access. They still exchange mnemonic sayings, adages and proverbs. "Many proverbs are, in fact, mnemonics [or perhaps I should say many mnemonics are, in fact, proverbs]," wrote Avise Nissen, a comparative literature scholar in Washington, in the Midwest Quarterly in 1997. "Thus we remind ourselves of folk wisdom concerning the weather by reciting, `Red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor's delight.'"

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