Douwe Draaisma

Metaphors of Memory

A History of Ideas on the Mind

How has mankind imagined memory over the course of history? Plato saw it as a wax tablet, in the Middle Ages it was seen as a book, the eighteenth century considered the automaton a fitting image, in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century photography, the gramophone and film competed for the honours, and contemporary psychologists now like to compare memory to a computer file or a hologram.

In De metaforenmachine psychologist and philosopher Douwe Draaisma describes the history of these metaphors for memory. Time and again philosophers and researchers have used the latest achievements of technology as an aid to visualise the unfathomable functioning of the brain. In the long term none of these metaphors has proved satisfactory and old metaphors have occasionally returned in a new form. But all too often psychologists resorting to such a step have also returned to the discredited formulation of problems of former times. Draaisma’s ironic conclusion is that the psychology of memory itself seems to suffer from a remarkable form of amnesia.

Why is psychology so fond of metaphors? Possibly, according to Draaisma, because an objective description of the mind is impossible. Even if brain research managed to explain the workings of consciousness, it would come no further than an external description. What happens when this mechanism says ‘I’ remains inescapably hidden to science, with its demand for demonstrable truth. Draaisma ends this fascinating, profound and eminently readable book by concluding that even the hardest of sciences is forced back on suggestive images in order to describe this extra facet. ‘I don’t know how my personal, introspective experience is related to the observable processes in my brain. I cherish my memory as an intimate but unfathomable possession.’

Draaisma belongs to that small club of academics who are blessed with a golden pen.

NRC Handelsblad

A valuable and interesting work about the use of images to make scientific hypotheses clear and plausible.

Vrij Nederland

A fascinating and impressive book.

De Groene Amsterdammer

Metaphors of Memory is a very readable book with a trove of information, well illustrated and documented.

De Standaard


Douwe Draaisma

Douwe Draaisma (b. 1953) is a Dutch psychologist, university professor and the author of many books on human memory. His best-known book, on autobiographical memory, translated into twenty-five languages, is Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older (2001). He has also written Disturbances of the Mind

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De metaforenmachine. Een geschiedenis van het geheugen (1995). Non-fiction, 270 pages.
Copies sold: 15,000

With illustrations, notes and references

Themes: memory


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