“Memory,” wrote the novelist Jean Paul in 1816, “is the only paradise out of which we cannot be driven away.” Critical theorist Theodor Adorno disagreed with his assertion. “Memories cannot be conserved in drawers and pigeonholes,” he wrote in response. “Precisely where they become controllable and objectified, where the subject believes himself entirely sure of them, memories fade like delicate wallpapers in bright sunlight.”
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’?”
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).”
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.
“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.’ ”
“Animals retain the memory of their experiences and have no need of mnemonic systems,” according to the third-century Roman writer Aelian. “A horse, on hearing the clash of curb chain and the clang of bit, and seeing chest plates and frontlets, begins to snort and makes his hoofs ring as he prances, and is in an ecstasy.”
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.”
In 1956 psychologist George Miller published a paper that claimed the average number of objects a typical human can hold in short-term memory is seven (plus or minus two). “What about the magical number seven?” he wrote. “What about the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in the Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, and the seven days of the week?”
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.”