En la era digital, la memoria se desvanece lentamente
Versión en español en el New York Times que se distribuye en Clarín.
"Se ha vuelto fácil olvidarse de enseñar a los jóvenes a recordar."
"El ideal victoriano del conocimiento enciclopédico quedó atrás."
"A medida que aumenta el espacio de almacenamiento en los chips informáticos, el almacenamiento humano de datos disminuye."
"Con los teléfonos celulares, ya nadie sabe ni los números telefónicos."
"El discurso y el recitado, que constituyeron en su momento los elementos centrales del sistema escolar estadounidense, prácticamente no existen."
En Fedro, de Platón un dios le ofrece al rey Thamus el don de escribir como ayuda a la memoria y la sabiduría; el rey dice "no gracias--no haría más que debilitarlas."
OOPS! ¦1¦ forgot the words she meant to lip-sync at the ¦2¦Video Music Awards on Sunday. With this momentary brain malfunction,she joined the absent-minded ranks of “American Idol” runner-upKatharine McPhee, who dropped a line from her medley of “Hound Dog/AllShook Up” in last year’s finals, and Miss Teen South Carolina, LaurenCaitlin Upton, who plumb forgot what she was saying in a pageantinterview that became a YouTube sensation.
WHAT’S MY LINE
Memorization and recitation are old hat. Forgetful stars like Britney Spears, left, are symbols of our times.
Performance anxiety, heavydrinking and even hair extensions have been variously blamed for theselapses. But why blame the victims? They are just products of a culturethat does not enforce the development of memory skills.
It’sgotten easy to forget to teach young people how to remember. TheVictorian ideal of encyclopedic knowledge has fallen away. While itused to be possible for one person to know all there was to know, withour current explosion of information, one person could never know itall. And said person isn’t even motivated to know a little bit —certainly not by heart.
As storage space on computer chipsincreases, human data storage decreases. With cellphones, no one evenknows phone numbers anymore. Given the rise of Web search engines,facts that used to be reliably in our brains are now at our fingertips,if we can remember our passwords.
Oration and recitation, oncestaples of the American school system, have largely been phased out.Rhetoric programs at universities have narrowed, merged withcommunications departments, or been eliminated altogether.
“Wedon’t have that kind of oral culture anymore,” said Prof. James Engell,author of “The Committed Word: Literature and Public Values,” whoteaches a rhetoric course at Harvard.“We are in a culture that devalues our sense of memory.” Back when JohnQuincy Adams was teaching it, Mr. Engell said, “rhetoric was anumbrella where you got moral philosophy, the development of literarytaste, intellectual prose, aesthetic appreciation, memorization andoral presentation. The ultimate object of this was what the Greekscalled phronesis, or practical wisdom.”
Prof. Catherine Robson of the University of California at Davis said there also was “an older heritage in American education where recitation was the standard pedagogical mode.”
“Everythingwas memorized, not just poetry,” said Ms. Robson, author of theforthcoming “Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.”“Knowing your lesson. The word recitation means repeating any lesson.”(She warns against too much nostalgia for the memory-happy past: “Anillusion of community was created because tremendous numbers of peoplelearned exactly the same texts.”)
Poetry memorization held,even as other rote learning slipped away. But no one could prove ithelped the mind develop: “That was one of the big justifications in thelast years of the 19th century — it promotes memory training,”Professor Robson said. “Then there was a whole slew of psychologicaltests and all they could discover was that memorizing poetry helps youto memorize poetry.”
But contemporary scientists have discoveredthat memorization exercises can stave off dementia, introducing a newworld of “neurobics.” Memory needs a workout as much as the abs do.Researchers have even shown that reciting poetry in dactylic hexametercan help synchronize heartbeats with breathing.
Other bodyparts may be involved, too, as suggested by stories of transplantpatients who acquire memories not their own. Mr. Engell said, “Memoryhas a kind of bodily presence.”
Of course the oral traditionhas been declining since antiquity. Plato describes the problem in his“Phaedrus,” where a god offers King Thamus the gift of writing as anaid to wisdom and memory; the king says no thanks — it could onlyweaken both. The rise of literacy and literary technology did undercutthe oral tradition, leading to a communication crisis that, as EricHavelock argued in his landmark book “The Muse Learns to Write,” wouldbe mirrored in modernity. Recent illiteracy and newer technologiescompound the problem, rendering us more memory free and fact impairedthan ever.
It doesn’t help that we lack reflective time. “Theidea that you would devote a good deal of time to a single thing or asingle poem or a single piece of data seems like it would be a waste oftime because you could be multitasking,” said Joan Gussow, a professorat Columbia Teachers College.
Even with recent attempts torevive the oral tradition like “Poetry Out Loud,” a national highschool recitation competition, those who can recite long pieces byheart are considered unusual (while those who can repeat briefplatitudes on cue are considered presidential material).
“When I was brought up, we had to memorize so much Shakespeare,” said the playwright A. R. Gurney.“One of the reasons I like to work in the theater is that theater notonly dignifies the idea of memory but also it’s an art form that callson the cultural memory.”
Mr. Gurney was surprised when “LoveLetters,” which he wrote as a literary piece, was considered a play andperformed with scripts in hand by actors who didn’t have to memorize aword. Soon other plays produced as readings followed, like Eve Ensler’s“Vagina Monologues” and “The Exonerated” by Jessica Blank and ErikJensen, attracting distinguished performers with the promise of littlerehearsal time and no commitment to memory.
“Asking actors tosimply read a script — though it works out very well — I feel I’ve insome ways started a trend that is not totally helpful for the culture,”Mr. Gurney said.
But those unmemorized dramas are just part of atrend that’s been going on for ages, beginning with a blind poet whocould recite whole books of verse, and ending with a blindsided popprincess who just wanted to make a comeback.