In Mind

homer poetThe rhapsodes of ancient Greece were not poets; they were rememberers. They recited the poems of Homer from memory, for an audience. It seems like an incredible feat. How could anyone remember so many lines of verse? The Odyssey has over 12,000 lines of dactylic hexameter; the Iliad contains nearly 16,000.

The poems were composed orally, before writing was common, and were preserved for centuries by the rhapsodes, one generation teaching it to the next. Think of the scene at the end of Fahrenheit 451, where people have become living books, and as they grow old, pass on their words to a new generation.

But it’s hard to imagine a world where you can’t just write down what you need to remember or look up what you’ve forgotten. School children used to memorize poetry, the names of the presidents, the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. Today, memorizing is considered such a low-level skill that it’s hardly worth teaching; tests should demand higher-level thinking, not regurgitation of facts.

Something has been lost. It is a very great thing to have all knowledge just a click away, but the human mind craves content. In the absence of input, it fills itself with whatever is at hand – a smattering of facts, opinions, and gossip. This content does not inspire any great thoughts. We can find Homer online, but the first Google search turns up Homer Simpson, not the Greek poet. Does anyone read Homer’s poems these days?

The human mind has an almost infinite capacity to remember, but making use of that capacity seems rare these days. There are people who don’t remember phone numbers they call every day; the phone keeps track of them, as well as every call made. We don’t even have to remember our thoughts; online journals contain the thoughts and memories of every person who takes a few minutes to blog about them. The internet is a vast, ever-expanding universal brain. Soon individual brains will be unnecessary; surely evolution will provide us with internet access rather than a hippocampus.

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