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.’