Memory and Oral Tradition


I’ve always been under the assumption that written tradition is more reliable than oral until I came across a fascinating article in November 2007 issue of National Geographic on the topic of “Memory.” It states:

“A memory is a stored pattern of connections between neurons in the brain. There are about a hundred billion of those neurons, each of which can make perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 synaptic connections with other neurons, which makes a total of about five hundred trillion to a thousand trillion synapses in the average adult brain. By comparison there are only about 32 trillion bytes of information int the entire Library of Congress.”

The article goes on to give examples of people and times where extraordinary memory was the norm:
“Ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories.

Thomas Aquinas, for example, was celebrated for composing his Summa Theologica entirely in his head and dictating it from memory with no more than a few notes. Roman philosopher Seneca the Elder could repeat 2,000 names in the order they’d been given him. Another Roman names Simplicius could recite Virgil by heart – backward.

A strong memory was seen as the greatest of virtues since it represented the internalization of a universe of external knowledge. Indeed, a common theme in the lives of the saints was that they had extraordinary memories.

In fact, there are long traditions of memory training in many cultures. The Jewish Talmud, embedded with mnemonics—techniques for preserving memories—was passed down orally for centuries. Koranic memorization is still considered a supreme achievement among devout Muslims. Traditional West African groits and South Slavic bards recount colossal epics entirely from memory.”

One Response to “Memory and Oral Tradition”

  1. Keith Says:

    There’s some good points to bad memory too: I know that any story that I tell a lot improves with each telling. It gets bigger, more dangerous, and meaningful. It has a life to itself. Whereas if I write it down, it’s as if it’s now and forever the same.

    If I ever write an autobiograhy, doubtful, but maybe I will just to use this line: “My memory is not very good these days. Which has exceedingly helped this account of my life to turn out much more interesting and exciting than it otherwise might have been.”

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