Landscape of Memory
Advances in technology can augment memory — or even replace it. (Illustrations by Thom Sevalrud for USC Dornsife Magazine.)

Landscape of Memory

Our memory holds our past, builds our future and forges our personal identity. It also shapes the historical record. This intangible asset might be the most powerful force humanity possesses — but will technology eventually overshadow it? [11¼ min read]
ByMargaret Crable

In 1770, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, then 14 and on a European tour with his father, arrived in Rome for the week before Easter Sunday. He attended Holy Wednesday Tenebrae service at the Sistine Chapel, where he heard a performance of Gregorio Allegri’s choral hymn “Miserere mei, Deus.”

This music was considered so sacred by the Catholic Church that, other than a handful of official copies, a papal mandate forbade any transcriptions of the music on threat of excommunication. 

In perhaps the first famous case of pirating music, Mozart sat down that evening and transcribed the entire piece, consisting of two different choirs singing in harmony, entirely from memory. He returned on Good Friday and listened to the piece again, to correct any errors. 

Nowadays, this story feels both astonishingly impressive and charmingly quaint. A modern Mozart would have just recorded the hymn on his iPhone. In the Western world, most of us are now carrying an external hard drive connected to the cloud where our wedding photos, best friend’s phone number or the start date for World War II are easily accessible via a quick search. 

This can make past feats of memorization feel outlandish. Mozart recreated 12 minutes of music after a single hearing — although he was, of course, one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time. But ancient Greeks knew the 15,693 lines of The Iliad by heart. Polynesian navigators sailed for thousands of years using ancestral navigation techniques passed down only by song. Until relatively recently, school children routinely memorized reams of poetry and Shakespeare’s greatest speeches. Meanwhile, today we struggle to remember how many ounces are in a pound without Google. 

Has our reliance on our devices withered our capacity for memory? Do we still have the prowess of recall our ancestors once boasted? 

Even if we’re no longer relying on our own memory for the retention of the past, and we no longer have an oral tradition to pass our history down through the generations, ensuring we maintain an accurate historical record remains of vital importance. Yet, modern technology — such as video recording — that we may now depend upon to do this for us has the potential for manipulation by unscrupulous actors, rendering it possibly as unreliable as our memories can sometimes prove inaccurate — or even more so. 

“Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither,” wrote Virginia Woolf.

“People are learning that the hippocampus is not just important for remembering things in the past, it’s also important for imagining things in the future.”

The Memory Machine

How, exactly, do we form a memory? “If I had the answer to that, I’d be a Nobel Prize winner,” says Dave Lavond, professor of psychology at USC Dornsife. The science of memory remains elusive, and no exact blueprint has yet been drafted, he notes.

However, we do know that a process called long-term potentiation (LTP) seems to play a big role, Lavond says. If one sees a tree for the first time, for example, different nerve cells in the brain spark into activity. These neurons form a pattern hinged together by synapses, which act a bit like sockets plugging different strands of Christmas lights together. This flickering neuron pattern is the first imprint of a memory.

The more the memory is revisited, the more it is strengthened. To reproduce the image of the remembered tree, the synapses blink the neuron pattern into life and the bond between synapses is more firmly forged each time. 

Much of this neuron activity takes place in the hippocampus, although research has begun to suggest that LTP may take place all over the brain. For instance, the late University Professor Emeritus Richard Thompson, William M. Keck Chair Emeritus in Psychology and Biological Sciences at USC Dornsife, discovered that Pavlovian responses, in which people are conditioned to react physically to stimuli, are stored by neurons in the cerebellum. 

Memory not only retains our past experiences, it also builds the future. “People are learning that the hippocampus is not just important for remembering things in the past, it’s also important for imagining things in the future,” says Mara Mather, professor of gerontology and psychology at USC Dornsife. “There’s a patchwork of elements in your mind that you’ve learned and you’re putting them together in different ways, to create richly imagined future events.”

The oral tradition

The underlying physiology of memory formation has hardly changed since the ancients, says Lavond. “We have the capability,” he says. “We’re just not using it.” Modern man could be as competent as our ancestors at memorizing the stars, provided we just put the effort in. 

Of course, our vision of early society may inflate the prowess of the individual memory and overlook the power of the collective. Lavond suggests there may have been more of an emphasis on delegating tasks, rather like a colony of ants. Each person’s memory would serve a distinctive role. “One person would be responsible for remembering medicine, another where the good hunting grounds are,” he says. 

Historians are undecided on the true importance of memory in ancient Greece, despite the fact it produced the celebrated oral poetry tradition of such classics as The Iliad. The civilization also had a written alphabet, although it’s hard to know to what extent writing was used.  

“Anything they would have written on leather, for instance, has perished,” explains William Thalmann, professor of classics and comparative literature. “For the early periods, what we have left are basically stones and pots. But this doesn’t prove that they didn’t rely a lot on writing. We do know that later on in democratic Athens, every time they passed a law it was inscribed on stone and publicly displayed in the marketplace.”

However, one of the most enduring of ancient Greece’s cultural accomplishments remains its epic poetry, which many scholars think was transmitted orally.  

There are certain advantages to retaining one’s cultural history in oral form — one being that, unlike leather or papyrus that eventually rot, the information can be passed from human to human, as long as the chain of recitation remains. 

Another is that the strict meter of epic poetry also aids memorization.

“It’s easy to remember Homeric poetry in Greek,” says Thalmann. “When you hear it, you just kind of absorb it. I could give you the first 20 lines of The Iliad with no problem, and I’ve never sat down to memorize it. It’s rhythmical, and this almost bodily experience reinforces what’s going on in your brain.”

Fun with mnemonics 

We might have the same physiological ability to memorize large quantities of information as our ancestors, but getting to their level feels like a challenge. Ancient Greece offers a technique. In A.D. 55, the philosopher Cicero recounted how the lyric poet Simonides invented “the method of loci” or “memory palace,” for memorization after he attended a disastrous dinner party. 

In the middle of reciting poetry at the ill-fated banquet, Simonides was briefly called away. When he returned, the house had collapsed and crushed the guests beyond recognition. Fortunately, Simonides was able to identify each corpse by visualizing where everyone had been sitting in the room. 

This mnemonic strategy, in which information is stored by placing it in imagined rooms for later retrieval, was famously used by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” says Holmes in A Study in Scarlet.

USC Dornsife alumnus Saud Siddiqui ’11, a biological sciences major, was inspired by the memory palace technique to create educational software for students who need to memorize large quantities of information. His educational platform, SketchyMedical, teaches medical students to store and recall complex concepts using videos with memorable visual scenes.

“By the end of the video, they have this cohesive map in their head. When they’re out on the wards in the hospital on their own, they can reenter that mentally and retrieve the information they need,” explains Siddiqui, who earned a place on the 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 list for his innovation. 

Land of lost memories 

While our memory may be unexpectedly robust, we are also learning that our brains are alarmingly fragile. Crushed by an injury, the brain ceases to cling to the same stories. Dementia renders memories irretrievable. 

Alzheimer’s disease affects one in 10 people over 65 in the United States, with the odds of a person developing it doubling every five years after their mid-60s. Beta-amyloid proteins stick together to form plaques that interrupt the synapses connecting neurons and choke off nutrients. Neurons begin to die and memories are lost — from the names of close relatives to the person’s own identity.  

Alzheimer’s is more widespread than we might think, as few symptoms are visible in the early stages of the disease. “Researchers have done post-mortem analyses on thousands of brains,” says Mather. “A low percentage of young adults analyzed would qualify for stage one Alzheimer’s disease. By late adulthood, almost all adults would qualify as being at least in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease on the basis of the tau pathology in their brain.”

Although aging is one risk factor — alongside genetics — not all older adults develop detectable symptoms of Alzheimer’s, even if most older brains contain Alzheimer’s-related pathology.

Decades of extensive research to track down a cure or treatment have met with little success. Prevention seems to be our best weapon. Most now know that a healthy diet and weight, regular exercise and avoiding excess alcohol consumption can help prevent the disease’s advance. 

However, the fate of our memories may be decided even earlier in life than we might guess. A study of nuns in the 1980s revealed that our youthful linguistic ability says much about our probability of developing the disease. 

Researchers examined written autobiographies that each nun wrote and submitted to her convent when she took her vows, around age 22. Despite the sisters sharing nearly identical lifestyles, those whose earlier autobiographies showed a high density of ideas and grammatical complexity in their writing were the least likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease decades later. 

Trusting our past 

Memory also extends beyond the individual and into the collective. Like the ancient Egyptian scholars of Alexandria, who condensed the many versions of The Iliad into one authoritative version, humanity takes its billions of memories and attempts to collate them into an agreed-upon narrative of the past. Our history is constantly challenged, disputed and rewritten as new memories are dug up or others reprioritized.  

The task of writing historical truth may seem easier now, with our nearly unlimited ability to capture the world for posterity through photos, video and other digital methods. Yet, we seem to trust the record less and less these days. 

Videos can no longer be assumed to be true now that “deep fakes” show politicians or celebrities declaring sentences they never uttered. Photoshop can alter any version of events. With endless internet access to documents lacking important context, everything from the moon landing to planes causing the fall of the twin towers during the 9/11 attacks is questioned as a potential hoax. 

Let’s talk it over

Perhaps this distrust in the memory of record reflects a growing desire for discourse. Videos of events, no matter how clear, still require scrutiny and context. 

Discontent with recorded events and thoughts goes as far back as ancient Greece. In Plato’s Phaedrus, which recounts a dialogue between the philosopher Socrates and the aristocrat Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the written word makes things fixed and unalterable, leaving no opening for debate. 

“What Plato’s dialogues are trying to do is give us an idea of a live conversation with Socrates, where you can be challenged for your ideas and made to give an account of them. You can qualify them, you can change them in collaboration with the person you’re talking to,” says Thalmann. “My sense is that the issue for him isn’t so much memory as the immediacy of conversation, the spontaneity of it, and the way it’s a process of collaboration in what we now call ‘real time.’”

Despite our technological advances, there may still be an advantage to using our memory to store the past. In some parts of the world, the tradition of oral storytelling has lived on. For instance, in West Africa wandering storytellers, called “griots,” act as a repository of cultural and historical information as they travel from village to village performing traditional songs. 

At USC Dornsife, Brandon Bourgeois, assistant professor of classics, is not alone in believing that the oral tradition that kept The Iliad alive bears remarkable similarities to modern rap. Both tell tales of everyday life, hardship, violence, love lost and gained. Both are stores of communal knowledge and wisdom, and a way of relating to the past.

Bourgeois is leading a revival of the ancient Greek oral poetry tradition by transforming The Iliad into rap lyrics.

“The project is not just a marriage between hip hop and ancient Greek poetry,” he says, “but a marriage between Homer and I.” 

As with rap, sometimes a classical Greek performer might listen to another recite a poem and decide he liked the way a certain section had been recited, and would incorporate that into his own version, Thalmann notes. Each performer could bring something fresh, allowing for an aspect of the individual in the recounting of our history, something humanity seems to long for as they forge their own renditions of the past on internet forums. 

Performing it to an audience who knows the material, as the Greeks knew The Odyssey, also meant fact-checking was instantaneous. A performer’s memory could bend some, but certain core historical truths remained, says Thalmann. 

“Odysseus always makes it home in the end.”

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Fall 2020/Winter 2021 issue >>