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RSA Comment tries to link readers to some of the events the Society is hosting so we can broaden audiences and continue the debate. Jonathan Rowson kicks off with Joshua Foer’s exploration of the nature of memory. Jonathan spoke at the RSA Wednesday 6 April. Find out more about the event.

One of my favourite song lyrics is from U2’s ‘Dirty Day’: “You can’t even remember what I’m trying to forget.” It might have been Bono’s sonorous voice, maybe the melody, or perhaps the electric guitar that follows this line that lodged it in my memory, but I like to think it stayed with me for deeper reasons.

The lyric highlights the enormous complexity and occasional absurdity of memory, reveals that remembering is often an active rather than passive process, and hints at the role memory plays in our identities and our social lives.

Visiting the RSA this week, Joshua Foer, a freelance science journalist and US Memory Champion, discussed The End of Remembering and his recent book Moonwalking with Einstein.

The book is a compelling mixture of distilled scientific research, cultural history, personal odyssey and an enlightened how-to guide on making more of our memories. Foer uses this rich range of content to surf the Zeitgeist in style, because he links the need for a deeper appreciation of memory with the role of electronic devices in weakening individual memories.

We hold much less in our heads because we hold so much more outside our heads. This development may not be particularly harmful to the information that matters to us, but Foer argues that losing personal introspective access to memories causes collateral damage at personal and cultural levels in ways we do not yet fully understand:

“What was once a cornerstone of Western culture is now at best a curiosity. But as our culture has transformed from one that was fundamentally based on internal memories to one that is fundamentally base on memories stored outside the brain, what are the implications for ourselves and for our society? What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?”

You can watch the video here. Find out what Foer thinks, and please come back to RSA Comment and let us know what you think. If, that is, you remember.


Dr Jonathan Rowson leads the Social Brain project at the RSA.

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