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"Mnemonics Neatly Eliminate Man's Only Nemesis (Insufficient Cerebral Storage)"

Mnemonics, or the art of memory, is today regarded as an arcane intellectual interest. It functions on the periphery of popular culture, largely through a literature of self-help designed to bolster the confidence of those insecure about their powers of recollection. If it is a useful skill, it is not an essential one in a civilization whose collective memory is securely stored in the printed word and, more recently, in digital media. Today’s archive exists in the library or the personal computer, not in the depths of a well-ordered mind.

Most of the mnemonic devices and techniques that remain today are simple and standardized. They are tools for remembering sequences of information, especially for recall in testing situations. Rather than learning general mnemonic tricks, students are left with specific rhymes or sentences to remember, for example: "Roy G. Biv" to remember the colors of the rainbow; "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" for the algebraic order of operations; and "lefty, loosey; righty, tighty" for mechanics. Despite the longevity of some of these specific mnemonics, however, they are but a mere suggestion of the much more complex and widespread mnemonic strategies of yesteryear: from the wandering rhapsody of ancient Greece who enthralled listeners with the epic tales of Homer to the philosophers of the Renaissance who constructed imaginary memory palaces to present their intricate designs of the cosmos. This dossier will explore mnemonics as a mode of mediation that stored knowledge in a world invested in the authority of the spoken word, and strove to represent and control the historically black-boxed functioning of human memory.

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Historical Sketch of Old Works on Mnemonics

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Cover image from Giambattista Vico's book The New Science. Each symbol was mean to help the reader recall all of the ideas in the book.

“A memory consists in the awareness, first, of the diminished intensity of an impression, second, of its increased ease, and third, of the connections it entertains with other impressions” (Kittler 1999, 31).

Long before transcription existed, there have been oral records of events in history: genealogies. In medieval Iceland, administrators of the law had to commit their entire juridical system to memory (Fentress and Wickham, 1992). In Ireland, bards would study for twelve years in order to memorize over 500 stories, as well as genealogies of all the leading Irish families (MacManus, 1967).

Reflecting back on this mnemonic oral tradition, the 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico contends that key to understanding of the nature of memory is derived from the direct correspondence between image and idea in primitive poetic language. In the beginnings of civilization, image and idea were one. Primitive peoples possessed robust memories because of the inseparable association they made between images and ideas in their comprehension of the world. They thought metaphorically, and the metaphors that they uttered were easily mimicked and remembered because they were richly expressive, grandiose, and full of wonder at the world. Vico revealed that the link between human imagination and the universe that the Renaissance Neoplatonists had sought to discover magically was in fact born historically in the development of human consciousness (Verene, 101).

The source of mnemonist’s method is visible in the poetic logic of Vico’s theory of the emergence of human consciousness. That theory, too, involves the relationship between places and images, which Vico labels topics and tropes. Topics were the poetic of formulae through which primitive people identified the phenomena of the world. As imaginative representations of particular aspects of realty, they provided common places or fixed points of reference amidst the flux of sense experience (Yates, 31). Considered in this context, Vico’s new art of memory becomes a retrospective search for connection between our present conceptions and the lost poetic images out of which they were born. In the logic of Vichian poetics, the new art of memory is a reconstruction of the imaginative process by which the poets of antiquity gave shape to their perception of the world. Therein the imaginative sources of our present ideas are to be found. The original topic might be linked to a palimpsest, repeatedly covered over with more abstract imagery as the human mind historically ascended the tropological gradient of linguistic expression. Vico’s art of memory was to decipher each tropological layer along the way until the original metaphorical topic, long forgotten, was recalled to mind (Hutton, 379).

Freud's theory as a reverse mnemonics

If mnemonics lay at the source of Romantic soul-searching (both personal and collective), the techniques themselves were only rarely the subject of introspective comment. It was left to Sigmund Freud at the turn of the 20th century to explain the role of memory in introspection in terms of a mnemonic code (Hutton, 386). In his theory of screen memories, Freud posits the constructive power of the unconscious mind to shape recollection. Forgetting rather than remembering is what we wish to do, he argues, because it is easier to live with a screen of fantasies rather than face the reality of our past. To use his terminology, memory is tendentious in that it reflects unconscious psychic intent. In this respect the Unconscious is the guardian of memory, legislating the selection of what is remembered, and what is repressed or hidden away. As an art of memory, therefore, psychoanalysis is a technique for deciphering the psychic intent encoded in screen memories (Hutton, 388). As we elaborate below, Freud's theory of the Unconscious, and of the forces of repression and trauma that affect the psyche, is incompatible with the classical lineage of mnemonics that assumes the individual's conscious control over his or her memory.

The Technology of Memory

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computerized memory theater

How Mnemonics Work

Mnemonics may be viewed as storage devices for information in the human mind. The brain, however, is like a black box, and has been throughout human history: many of its operations are a mystery, and we are still just uncovering how it accomplishes many of the tasks we take for granted. Memory is one such process that captured the imaginations of pre-modern thinkers, and that contemporary scientists are still trying to understand. However, there are a few things that have been discovered over the years about how mnemonics function. The process of remembering is split up into different steps: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Mnemonics are involved with encoding. The best way to learn things, or encode them, is to associate them with other things. In people's mind, "apple" will often be associated with "red" and "round." By retrieving the concept of "red," the memory of "apple" will also be triggered. Mnemonics capitalize on this principle by creating more entry points to different pieces of information.

At first glance, mnemonics may seem rather counter-intuitive because they require one to remember more information in order to solve the problem of remembering something else entirely. Rather than simply remembering one date, 1492 for example, mnemonics ask that you remember a poem: "In 1492 / Columbus sailed the ocean blue." More information is required in an attempt to lodge an initial piece of information in one's mind. While this technique seems rather contradictory, it works because it creates associations, or configurations of information more likely to stick in one's memory. A useful metaphor may be that a memory is a series of files. Mnemonics store bits of information in a number of different files through which to access the information.

Arbitrariness and the Cake-Mix Effect

In many mnemonic systems, the specifics of the "extra" information one learns to create associations is often entirely arbitrary and can be adapted for each individual. Much like pre-packaged cake mix, mnemonic techniques offer a basic structure, but the particular words and connections that will best work for an individual mind must be added to the formula for it to function. For example, a common strategy for remembering an ordered list is to remember the first letter of each item and put together a new sentence in which each of the words starts with one of the letters needing to be remembered, in the proper order. So if one wanted to remember biological taxonomic classifications from broadest to most specific (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, Variety), one need construct a new sentence in which each subsequent word starts with the next letter in order (K,P,C,O,F,G,S,V). Each individual might have a different sentence that works best for him or her, however. So while one student might find it most advantageous to remember "King Philip's Classic Order: Family Genius - Special Value'" another might find it easier to remember "Kindly Place Cover On Fresh Green Spring Vegetables." This flexibility makes mnemonics a useful set of strategies, and the failure of these techniques is often dependent on the arbitrary information filled into the system. If someone fails to remember the order of the taxonomical classes it is usually because the sentence used is not the best for the user. Many mnemonic systems work in this manner, tailored to the individual mind. One prime historical example of this is the memory palace.

Method of Loci

A poetic, time-honored example of the method of loci may be found in the cosmology of Australian aborigines, whose ancestors are said to have sung the world into existence (Cambor, 2001). Every rock and crevice of the outback has a song associated with it, and the traveler knows their location exactly by their place in the song, the words of which corresponds to their physical surroundings. These songs have been transcribed to aid in the understanding of the geology of the continent. Across the globe, in Ancient Rome, mnemonics were used by lawyers to remember the points they wanted to make in a lawsuit. The method of loci was first formally described by Quitilian, a first century Roman rhetorician. As the historian Frances Yates describes in her book The Art of Memory, the most common forms of the method of loci are memory palaces, memory theaters, and memory gardens.

Case Study or Trace Study of the Memory Palace

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Engraving by Robert Fludd revealing memory attached to images

Memory Palaces are methods of loci which use an imagined architecture to structure a speech based on associations of symbols. They are a spatialized remediation of association. Before memory palaces were implemented, hieroglyphs and other forms of picture writing were already using symbols to stand in for words and ideas. Memory palaces abstract this notion of association and complicate it in order to allow one to remember hundreds of ideas. While mnemonics can be written down, the memory palace is completely imagined, and therefore the process and the media is black boxed within the mind of the subject, and like Iris, the message or information is internalized. The memory palace is evoked, in the same way the muse used to be evoked, in order to help the speaker remember his or her message. This method was developed out of a human lack, and the need to remember large amounts of information. When using the memory palace, one needs only to remember the symbols, after which the encoded information becomes unlocked like the chirograph which connects to its counterpart. Memory palaces were constructed out of an anxiety for memory being lost, but in reality it is always already lost.

This mode of mediation is based on location, but it itself has no location and exists as a non-space that stores imagined data. The subject that uses the memory palace becomes split and is forced to inhabit two realities as one must imagine walking through the memory palace and picking up each predetermined object while simultaneously being rooted in a physical space and delivering a live speech to an audience. The subject must navigate the memory palace like an automaton on automatic pilot but cannot get fully immersed or lost in it. Discipline of the mind and the body is necessary since the subject cannot think, but must become a machine and instrument for the reading of memory.

The Mechanization of Memory

Hegel discusses memory in two terms: “Erinnerung” and “Gedächtnis.” Erinnerung for Hegel is recollection, memory based on learning and internalization. It therefore has a relationship to the past and to a missing Other. Gedächtnis is the forgetting of meaning in favor of memorization and technologized memory, just as the technologization of speech through the act of writing represents the erasure of speech and the marking of its becoming forgotten. Gedächtnis acts as the simulacrum and mechanical reproduction of memory but empties it of its original meaning (Ronell, 2010). Memory palaces fall under Gedächtnis, as they are a phantom crutch or prosthetic for remembering which can be easily dismantled and forgotten. The technique does reflect Erinnerung in that it calls to its missing Other which is the real house, but, because reality of the memory palace is artificially constructed, it has no relationship to the past. The associations within the memory palace are also artificial, revealing the manipulation of memory which becomes something external that can be altered and changed. Derrida writes, “What Plato is attacking in sophistics, therefore, is not simply recourse to memory but, within such recourse, the substitution of the mnemonic device for live memory, of the prosthesis for the organ; the perversion that consists of replacing a limb by a thing, here, substituting the passive, mechanical ‘by-heart’ for the active reanimation of knowledge, for its reproduction in the present. The boundary (between inside and outside, living and nonliving) separates not only speech from writing but also memory as an unveiling (re-)producing a presence from re-memoration as the mere repetition of a monument…(Derrida 109).” Paul de Man elaborates on the contradictory nature of Gedächtnis and Erinnerung, “Memory effaces remembrance (or recollection) just as the I effaces itself. The faculty that enables thought to exist also makes its preservation impossible. The art, the techné, of writing which cannot be separated from thought and from memorization can only be preserved in the figural mode of the symbol, the very mode it has to do away with if it is to occur at all (de Man 102).” Here, Gedächtnis effaces Erinnerung, like mechanical reproduction effaces the original, and writing effaces speech.

Memory Palace as Afterimage and Trace

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Purkyně's "artery figure" taken from Zielinksi's Deep Time of the Media

The effacing of Erinnerung caused by Gedächtnis also speaks to the idea of an afterimage which effaces the original image. The memory palace is an afterimage and faint impression of one’s home which it replaces. Jonathan Crary writes that the afterimage “…allowed one to conceive of sensory perception as cut from any necessary link with an external referent. The afterimage – the presence of sensation in the absence of a stimulus – and its subsequent modulations posed a theoretical and empirical demonstration of autonomous vision, of an optical experience that was produced by and within the subject (Crary 98).” The afterimage of the memory palace is detachable, once it is created the originary house isn’t necessary to evoke it, rather it can be evoked independently by the subject. Derrida’s concept of the “trace” is essentially the afterimage of a sign. While memory palaces are the navigation of symbols within a space, where space itself is also a symbol, the nature of these symbols are imagined and therefore nonpresent. Derrida saw signs as related to living memory, and the “trace” as having to do with dead memory Derrida writes, “The trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, no place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace. Effacement must always be able to overtake the trace; otherwise it would not be a trace but an indestructible and monumental substance (Derrida 156).” The trace refers to that which is no longer present, leaving only the relics and remains to be read.

Memory as Archive and Crypt

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human brain as memory archive

Memory palaces are a static archive of files. Cornelia Vismann links the structure of fixed archives to tombs which seal and bury files. Vismann writes, “The immobile tomes are their own tombs...The immobilization amounts to a musealization, creating a work of art out of files (Vismann 161-162).” The memory palace echoes this sentiment and acts more as a mausoleum than a museum. The frozen architecture of the memory palace is doubled by the frozen images within it, turning the palace into a crypt. The shaping of the memory palace into a petrified and dead picture reveals the artifice of constructed memory. Its static and spectral quality lends it to the space of the crypt and removes it from the space of the living. It is the dead memory that must be summoned by the speaker, called to as the missing Other, and resurrected into the present.


Memory Palaces must be practiced, otherwise they are prone to being forgotten. Practice and performance keeps artificial memory alive, otherwise it returns to the crypt. They are meant to be remembered for a specific event, such as a specific speech, but once the event has passed, the memory palace recedes, shatters, and erases itself into the depths of the mystic writing pad’s unconscious. The memory palace, then, is made to be forgotten. Vismann writes, “With one sharp and one blunt end, the stylus unites writing and erasing, those two fundamental chancery operations, in one instrument. Herein lies an analogy to the workings of memory: just as the Greek verb hypomnematizesthai equates filing and remembering, its opposite, exaleiphein, combines a practical act and a function of memory by referring both to forgetting and wiping off (Vismann 55).” In this sense the memory palace is obliterated and becomes buried as a trace and remnant. Memory and forgetting work as though in a circuit, the production of one is almost always the production of the other, to remember one thing often causes one to forget another less relevant thing. Vismann also discusses forgetting as enabling memory, just as the afterimage or trace enables the original image, or the second gives birth to the first. Mechanical reproduction also enables the original, revealing the necessity of the copy and the negation in order to preserve the referent. There is only so much space in the human brain, therefore acquiring new information or new memories must also imply a certain amount of forgetting.

Mnemonic Expression: Writing Secrets and Speaking the Mind

The art of memory is like an inner writing - Frances Yates.

While mnemonic techniques were designed for oral performance without visible written aid, they were, from a Derridean perspective, systems of representation organized by writing. Rather than utilizing writing to externalize memory, mnemonics structured texts to correlate with the (variously imagined) inner mechanisms of the psyche. Mnemonics shaped poetics via rhyme and meter, for instance, rendering the text structurally uniform so that it might be more easily remembered and spoken. Mnemonic technique thus interfaced between speech and writing, presence and trace. In the same vein, mnemonics mediated between the interior mind and the external world, articulating both. Mnemonics are thus not simply storage techniques but expression: a form of writing (or art of memory) that reveals historically deviant memories and, in attempting to control its input and output, represents the persistently black-boxed functioning of the human mind.

Mnemonics as cryptography

As a mode of mediation, mnemonics represent a curious combination of semiotics and functional nonsense. Mnemonic signs (images, places, phrases) must be nearly evacuated of meaning in order to cue—but not replace—the desired information actively attached to (or associated with) them. From this perspective, articulated above [1], mnemonics functioned as a storage technique comprised of arbitrary signifiers (like Roy G. Biv) rather than a communicative semantic system. The seemingly nonsensical functioning of mnemonics, however, leaves open the opportunity for obfuscation. If mnemonics could be 'objectively' coded for memory, then they could also perform as encrypted transmission.

Giordano Bruno's magic mnemonics

Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar and peripatetic philosopher famous for his “amazing powers of recollection” (Zielinski 72) provides a historical example of the cryptographic, communicative potential of mnemonics in the late 16th century. Bruno was eventually burned at the stake during the Inquisition for his use of magic and allegiance to hermeticism: a philosophy named for Hermes and Thoth and based in Egyptian astrology, which, needless to say, clashed with Christian doctrine. In Deep Time of The Media, Siegfried Zielinski links hermetic tradition (which persisted into the Renaissance but had to be promulgated secretly) to the “subhistory” stemming from “the passion for encrypting and deciphering texts runs through the sciences” since the 13th century (Zielinski 73). He also notes that cryptography made particular demands on memory and was thus bound to mnemonic ability (83). Bruno took this relationship one step further. In his writings and teachings, Bruno endeavored to both transmit and internalize hermetic secrets through mnemonic technique.

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Frances Yates' rendition of Giordano Bruno's mnemonic wheel described in Shadows (1582).
“The secret was the combination of the Hermetic beliefs with the techniques of the art of memory” (Yates 305) writes Frances Yates, so that these “memory systems” became “a mode of transmitting a religion, or an ethic, or some message of universal import” (387).

Bruno’s system of “magic mnemonics” (Yates 223) hinged on his belief that the memorization of significant images enabled the "harnessing of the inner world of the imagination to the stars, or reproducing the the celestial world within" (215). Memory, for Bruno, was thus a dioptric medium, allowing the passage of the sublime order of the heavens into the individual psyche, "arriving at the vision within of the One light diffused through all" (230). This divine lumen, however, was guarded by catoptric technique. Bruno's mnemonic system was based the arrangement of intricate wheels of astral symbols and magic images. Bruno's first book on the art of memory is aptly titled Shadows: as Yates observes, there is “Circaean mystification at the heart of this memory treatise” (247). Bruno’s mnemonic code thus had a dual function to reveal and conceal. He sought to at once unify the human imagination and the celestial order through memory, and to keep this mnemonic recipe secret, decipherable only by those who understood hermetic principles and believed in magic.

Written in wax

Wax—the inscription media associated with classical rhetoric and art of memory—was remediated in recording technology and psychoanalytic discourse at the turn of the 20th century. Through a brief comparison of modern and antique articulations of wax as the material substrate of memory, we may glimpse how the rise and fall of mnemonics is subject to the imagined materiality—and malleability—of the mind.

Antique imaginary: the obvious

Cicero’s De oratore (finished in 55 B.C.E.) is among the earliest treatises describing mnemonics as a rhetorical art (Yates 17). Cicero credits Simonides with the invention of the art of memory, when, with “with almost divine powers of memory,” he “wrote down what he wanted to remember in certain places in his possession by means of images, just as if he were describing letters on wax” (qtd. in Yates 19). Yates interprets Cicero’s portrayal of the origin of mnemonics as “an inner writing on wax” (19): Simonides internalizes the wax tablet, the medium for recording speech that Phaedrus famously concealed under his cloak in Plato’s dialogue. Cornelia Vismann identifies wax as the key medium in the shift from oral to written legal and administrative culture in the West. “To synchronize speech and writing,” Vismann describes, “the speedwriters or exceptores responsible for files and protocols drew their letters in wax, which, in Quintilian’s words, puts up as little resistance to inscribing as it does to erasing” (Vismann 55). These speedwriters were also employed to take down the senate minutes, which “in search for the aura of the authentic,” “aim[ed] for [a] presentist effect” (54). Mnemonic systems were likewise designed to uphold these cultural values of presence and authenticity, and were analogous to wax in their ability to suture oral performance and written record.

A Grecian wax tablet.

Wax was thus the obvious material through (and on) which to describe mnemonics, which interfaced between speech and writing. The metaphor has an additional layer: as a malleable, hand-held medium, the wax tablet suggests that the memory is also easily manipulable by an autonomous author. Cicero renders Simonides as the authorial agent of his inner wax tablet, and thus in control of his memory. Nearly two millennia later, during the modern turn, the idea that one could rely on—let alone control—one’s memory was undercut by the development of recording technologies and the rise of psychoanalytic theories of trauma and repression. Curiously, at this historical moment, the connection between wax and memory that once portrayed both mnemonics and the inner-workings of the classical mind is again applied to mental faculties. This later incarnation of inner wax, however, is not subject to authorial intent, but inscribed upon by machines and the Unconscious.

Modern memory: the return of the repressed?

Two notable depictions of wax as the material substrate of memory bracket Kittler’s year 1900: Jean-Marie Guyau’s Memory and Phonograph (1880) and Sigmund Freud’s Note Upon the ‘Mystic-Writing Pad’ (1925). “What good are the poetic mnemonic techniques of rhyme and meter when wax rolls can store not only substance and tone but real sounds?” (Kittler 1992, 236), Kittler asks in Discourse Networks, 1800/1900. Guyau addressed this anxiety of the inferiority of human memory and the limits of language early on by claiming the phonograph as the most exact metaphor for man’s ability to record and recite—to read, write, and speak. Notions of manipulating the memory with images, places, and signs is replaced with a techno-scientific inscription in Guyau’s comparison: “Upon speaking into a phonograph, the vibrations of one’s voice are transferred into a point that engraves lines on a metal plate…in analogous ways, invisible lines are incessantly carved into the brain cells” (qtd. in Kittler 1999, 30-31). In Guyau's view, the materiality of the modern mind must be akin to the phonograph's metal plate and wax rolls, because, unlike the wax tablet which can only record spoke words, these mechanisms can fix unwritable data flows and capture the noise of modern life.

Freud’s use of the mystic-writing pad as an analogy for the psyche also revises the idea of memory and inscription. Freud dismisses mnemonics right off the bat: “If I distrust my memory,” he begins, “I am able to supplement and guarantee its working by making a note in writing” (Freud 227). External “devices to aid memory” (228) are imperfect compared to our own sensory apparatus, however, which “has an unlimited receptive capacity for new perceptions and nevertheless lays down permanent—even though not unalterable—memory-traces of them” (228). Though he distrusts his memory, Freud echoes the ancient Greeks in imagining the psychic apparatus as a remediation of the wax tablet: the mystic-writing pad. Unlike the imagined mnemonic tablet, however, Freud’s pad is not consciously inscribed, but “receives perceptions (which are accompanied by consciousness)and passes the excitation on to the unconscious mnemic systems” (231). In Freud's illustration of the psyche, it is not the individual who consciously writes upon his or her memory, but the semi-conscious (and potentially traumatic) perceptions that exceed language which mark the material substrate of the mind.

Though these modern articulations of the mind destabilize the ability of human memory (assumed by mnemonics) and man’s conscious, literate power over it (and symbolized by wax), they are haunted by the idea of control and power that they repress. Guyau and Freud participate in the same endeavor to represent the black box of the mind, reiterating the art of memory via technological and psycho-scientific metaphor.

Obsolescence and the Changing Thinker

According to Yates, the quest for improved memory through artificial mnemonic systems emerges as a critical part of our attempt to organize knowledge and impose a comprehensible order on our chaotic world. Perhaps the decline of these time-honored techniques is simply due to the fact that it is decreasingly relevant or important to remember things. The way we interact with information has changed drastically since a time before writing, thus changing the way we think. As Nietzsche observed, "our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts" (Carr). When the printing press was invented by Johann Gutenberg in the early 1450s, memory techniques started to lose their prominence. People were suddenly able to record history, genealogies, law codes and stories without committing them to memory.

With easy access to computer databases and the Internet, the need for mnemonic devices is has faded even further. This shift in thinking was pointed out in a recent article published in the New York Times: "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 thing, except maybe your user name and password(s)?" (Rosenthal). Clive Thompson summed up the change in thinking even more succinctly in Wired magazine: "Almost without noticing it, we've outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us." In a time when memory was the only storage device or at least one of the most efficient, mnemonics were an obvious form of mediation, but as new technologies have become available making it simple to find almost any fact in a few quick keystrokes and a quick skimming of a web page, those old strategies have become less necessary. As Crary observes, audiences must be trained to use new mediums and technologies (Crary 6), and through our re-training, it is not surprising mnemonics have largely disappeared. We have been schooled in new ways of solving the problem of retaining important details, with external resources in hand. Perhaps this modern resistance to memorization masks an anxiety caused by a diminished sense of our own mnemonic capabilities (Cambor 2001) due to developments in technology and the emergence of psychoanalysis at the turn of the modern era, or perhaps memory itself is a dying medium.


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