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Memory and the brain
How Memory Works
Forgetting and Amnesia

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Tool Module: Human Memory versus Computer Memory Human Memory versus Computer Memory

From the moment it was invented, the printing press has given rise to censorship, because of the government’s fear that it would help spread new ideas. Books make people think, and this scares leaders who fear the people’s reactions to unfair laws and illegitimate authority. When many books are banned, ideas cannot circulate, and protests cannot be organized.

Official histories of a society’s collective experience are a way of taking control over its collective memory. A society’s ruling class always tends to downplay the less illustrious episodes in its history, when it does not rewrite them completely in its textbooks. For example, in the United States, the winning of the West is almost always portrayed as a great epic adventure, which hides the fact that it meant genocide for the American Indian.

George Orwell’s novel 1984 provided a perfect illustration of how certain élites in a society can shape its collective memory to suit their own ends. Like individual memory, history will always remain an arrangement of the past that is subject to the prevailing social, economic, and political influences of the times in which the historians live.

Tool Module: History as a Scientific Discipline

People have always tried to keep some records of what they have learned. The earliest records consisted of oral tradition, rituals, and cave paintings. Later on, the ancient Egyptians used pictographs called hieroglyphs to glorify their pharaohs. The subsequent invention of alphabetical writing marked the first universally accessible form of external collective memory (as opposed to internal individual memory, located in the human brain). This was the birth of history.

The advent of movable type, and later of computers, marked giant leaps in the development of humanity’s external collective memory.

Until the middle of the 15th century, monks working as scribes copied manuscripts by hand using various writing techniques. But around 1450, Gutenberg perfected certain methods that led to the printing revolution. It was a revolution because suddenly, large numbers of copies of written works could be produced relatively easily.

By making books inexpensive, the printing press allowed the dissemination of all kinds of ideas and made a knowledge-based society possible. Books spread knowledge not only of the experimental sciences, but also of the humanistic ideas of Rabelais, Montaigne and many other great authors. Thus, the printing press opened the way to the publication of encyclopedias and the Age of Enlightenment.


Printing Shop in Lyon. A. Vénard, book illumination, 16th century.


Pascal’s calculating machine (1659), six-digit model: the ancestor of the modern computer.

Source: Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers.


Like the invention of the printing press several centuries ago, the advent of the computer is revolutionizing the human ability to store information, images, and language. Today, magnetic and optical technologies allow information to be stored at speeds and densities that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

In computer systems, there are two main types of peripheral devices on which information is stored: magnetic storage devices and optical storage devices. On magnetic hard drives and diskettes, information is stored through the orientation of tiny magnetic particles. On traditional optical disks (CDs), information is stored in microgrooves of varying lengths etched into the disk, and read back by means of laser beams.

Writing, printing, and computers are tools that let us associate meanings with representations. And this human societies externalization of our representations and our memories could almost be described as the chief characteristic of human societies.


With the invention of writing, society’s memory no longer depended on individuals’ memories, but instead could be externalized in a tangible, portable, reproducible form. Past events could now be relived at will, even if those who witnessed them were no longer alive.

But writing also fostered the development of thought, by providing new intellectual tools such as lists, tables, formulas, computation algorithms, and so on. The availability of such reliable, extensible forms of external working memory also enabled people to deploy their thoughts beyond the limits of their individual, internal working memories. The result was the subsequent invention of still more elaborate cognitive artifacts, such as maps and calculating instruments, of which today’s computers are the culmination.

The creation of computer networks and the Internet represents a still newer form of external memory that can classify and pre-process information for us. This phenomenon is still too recent for its cognitive and cultural effects on human beings to be discerned, but we can already predict that these effects will be substantial.

Linked Module: Pour un avenir inhumain? Linked Module: Totalement Inhumaine, a book by Jean-Michel Truong Linked Module: Sylvain Fontaine’s summary of Totalement Inhumaine

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