Friday, June 20, 2008

There has been a spate of great articles recently about the Internet, reading and how technology is impacting the way we think. The Atlantic Monthly was emblazoned with a question posed by Nicholas Carr; "Is Google Making is Stoopid?" For those of us who in all truth don't need Google to make is stupid it's a fun read. I always love a good scapegoat. Although I do feel that the Internet uses text and image together in a similar way to Medieval and Renaissance manuscriptsHere's a link to a recent On Point radio show with neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf describing about how learning to read creates a tectonic shift in the cognition of children which manifests itself. It's fun to listen to her because she makes you feel so smart for even learning how to read. Her wonderfully titled book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain is my long list of things I will read when I am living in the South of France and can spend endless hours at my local cafe every day reading.

I think though that these shifts in our ways of thinking aren't unique to this period in history. One of the coolest theories I've heard is from Julian Jaynes who wrote the lovely egg-headie titled monograph The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It's on my list of books I will read when either a freak nuclear accident or complete isolation from Google makes me smarter. Jaynes looks at ancient literature and argues that in works like the Iliad humans aren't conscious by our current definition. Words weren't used metaphorically and the human mind functioned with a bicameral split. He argues that when an ancient person perceived stimulus from the intuitive, creative right temporal lobe it would be interpreted as  Athena issuing a command or delivering a celestial missive. He wrote that at a certain point when the lobes of our brains started functioning in concert, writers would lament that the gods had stopped talking to them.

The ability to read and write things down easily was an enormous shift for our memories. Portions of human memory could be housed in books. Before the days of sticky notes and scratch pads ancient and Medieval thinkers would rely upon very intricate mnemonic devices. Augustine described the use of memory palaces. You would create various rooms containing symbols for things you wanted to remember. Feats of memory were much praised throughout the medieval world. There was a fascinating article about human memory in the National Geographic last fall that gives a wonderful overview of art of memory in the ancient world. The author also describes an interesting new phenomenon; our memories are increasingly residing in our hard drives and remote servers. I think mine must have gotten lost in cyberspace somewhere. Or maybe it never made it there with everyone else's. Could it have gotten stuck in a loose wire somewhere? Maybe if I do a Google search for it it might turn up.


chris said...

Google the phrase "Language is a virus." Maybe with William S. Burroughs as well (not that the song isn't good).

BlickyKitty said...

Chris man, are you just trying to say "That's why I'd rather hear your name than see your face."?

:) That was Laurie Anderson's addition to the Burroughs metaphor. I'll read further. Thanks for the heads-up.