“In Turkish we have a special tense that allows us to distinguish hearsay from what we’ve seen with our own eyes,” wrote Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul: Memories and the City. “When we are relating dreams, fairy tales, or past events we could not have witnessed, we use this tense. It is a useful distinction to make as we ‘remember’ our earliest life experiences, our cradles, our baby carriages, our first steps, all as reported by our parents, stories to which we listen with the same rapt attention we might pay some brilliant tale of some other person.”
The first written language, Sumerian cuneiform, is believed to date to around 3000 bc. Archaeologists have found evidence that astronomical texts were still being written in cuneiform in the first century of the Common Era; decadent varieties of the language survived to the time of Christ.
In 1927 Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik identified a phenomenon that came to be known as the Zeigarnik effect, which states that waiters are good at remembering particulars of a restaurant bill—until the bill is paid. “Unfinished tasks are remembered approximately twice as well as completed ones,” concluded Zeigarnik.
In 1995 cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted a study in which she presented to twenty-four people four stories about their childhoods. Three of the stories were true; one was false. Five of the twenty-four people falsely remembered the “lost in a mall” story. “People can be led to remember their past in different ways,” concluded Loftus, “and they even can be led to remember entire events that never actually happened to them.”
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most of the Katanga region in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo was dominated by Luba kings. A powerful secret society known as the mbudye (men of memory) created handheld wooden objects called lukasa (long hand, or claw) as mnemonic aids to maintain oral narratives about fundamental aspects of Luba culture.
Advocating in 1790 for the adoption of card catalogues, the German librarian Albrecht Christoph Kayser cited the “common mistake of employees that they believe they will live forever.” Workers “arrange their shops without regard for their successors, considering them well kept in their own memory, without written notes, thus making it impossible for those eventually taking their place, or at least making it infinitely more complicated for anyone to pick up the thread of those who have been called to meet their maker.”
Written in Los Angeles in 1955, the song “Memories Are Made of This” became a number-one hit for Dean Martin. It was a surprise success in Europe, spending four weeks at the top of the UK Singles Chart. A German version, performed by Freddy Quinn and recast as “Heimweh” (“Homesickness”), was the most popular German song of 1956. As “Honvágy-dal” (“The Song of Homesickness”) it became the anthem of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
According to film director Joe Swanberg, a significant number of people believe that an obscure 1985 film about mind control was not in fact real, and that they had dreamed the particulars of the Quebecois film. “The Peanut Butter Solution,” wrote Swanberg, “successfully convinced young viewers that they dreamed it rather than watched it.”
Malingering amnesia, in which a person fakes symptoms of memory loss, is often associated with attempted financial gain, typically among personal-injury claimants. According to a 2003 study, 29 percent of criminals sentenced to life imprisonment claimed at their trials that they suffered from amnesia. A visual recognition test, such as the Test of Memory Malingering, can be used to detect fraud of this kind.
According to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “Writing was an invention which took about two thousand years to make its effect felt. Do you recall, even in Plato’s dialogues, the discussions are seldom if ever about what the participants have ‘read’ but almost invariably about what they ‘remember’?”
“When Simonides or someone offered to teach him the art of memory,” Cicero noted in his De Finibus, the Athenian politician Themistocles “replied that he would prefer the art of forgetting. ‘For I remember,’ said he, ‘even things I do not wish to remember, but I cannot forget things I wish to forget.’ ”
Researchers at the MIT Media Lab recently determined that all cultural products “follow a universal decay function.” People and things are kept alive through “oral communication” for about five to thirty years. “Biographies remain in our communicative memory the longest (twenty to thirty years),” according to their report, “and music the shortest (5.6 years).”
A 2001 study in Science magazine found that matriarchal African elephants are essential to the well-being of elephant social groups because they possess social memories that enable them to recognize if outsiders are friendly to the herd. “Elephants can certainly build up a memory over the years and hold on to it,” said the study’s lead author.