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Memory and the brain

How Memory Works

Help Linked Module: De l'écriture à l'informatique en passant par l'imprimerie Linked Module: L'invention de l'écriture Book : La Mémoire à la barre

Some members of societies with oral traditions are truly professional memorizers. These storytellers can remember and relate an impressive repertoire of tales through which the knowledge of the community’s ancestors is preserved and passed down. But because oral tradition relies on individuals’ memories, inevitably some things are added, some are lost, and some errors are introduced as these stories are passed along.

Writing most likely originated with drawing or with its simplified form, pictographs. Bit by bit, writing then evolved to the use of alphabets. Alphabets in turn let writing be democratized, because it is far easier to teach someone the thirty or so characters in an alphabet than the thousands of symbols in a pictograph-based written language. It is also believed that the advent of Athenian democracy had a lot to do with the democratization of reading and writing.

Memory plays an essential role in the establishment of human societies. Every social group perpetuates itself through the knowledge that it transmits down the generations. These behaviours and this knowledge can pass into a group’s collective memory in two ways: through oral tradition or through writing–the two great methods of transmission that appeared successively in the course of history.

In societies that have no form of writing, oral tradition is the main and almost the only way of preserving the lessons of the past. The set of oral utterances that constitute this tradition expresses both the rules of individual conduct and the rules of social relations. These utterances include founding myths, historical accounts, mottoes, proverbs, tales and legends, songs, poems, invocations, etc.

In these societies without writing, other mechanisms besides language are also used to help maintain the body of knowledge. Thus rituals, notably in religious observances, comprise gestures that are reminders not only of beliefs but also of past facts, such as the founding of a village, the forming of various alliances, the sharing of a meal, and so on. But over time, the members of society who perform these rituals can lose their sacred meaning and end up reproducing only their form.


Just like oral language, writing can be used to store and exchange information. But though human societies seem to have been using articulate language for about the past 100,000 years, writing does not seem to have appeared until just slightly over 5,000 years ago.

Writing caused a fundamental shift in civilization. It favoured the appearance of large cities, legal codes, business accounting, and trade instead of barter. The coining of money is another form of data storage that was made possible by writing.

Some anthropologists associate the invention of logic, science, and philosophy with the invention of alphabetical writing. Lastly, pedagogy, defined as the broader transmission of such knowledge, also benefited greatly from the advent of writing.

Clay tablet with cuneiform writing, 2,400 B.C.


The invention of writing made it possible for the first time for human beings to preserve very precise records of their knowledge outside of their brains. In the process, it thus also created history, the discipline that interprets the written records of the past.

Tool Module: History as a Scientific Discipline



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