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Robert Andrew
 
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Thoughts vs data

19 February 2014, 19:30

Steven Rose, in The Making of Memory, describes how many ancient philosophers were dubious about having a written culture. They claimed that writing was inhuman-it depersonalised thoughts and weakened the mind. Socrates even argued that writing destroys memory and those who write will become forgetful since they have to rely on external sources for what they lack in internal resources. Many people will undoubtedly disagree with Socrates and will quote all the literary masterpieces, ancient and modern, which passed on wonderful insights and intimate knowledge of the thoughts and ideas of their writers.

Great scientists too, like Albert Einstein, who communicated very complex thoughts by writing, certainly cannot be accused of being forgetful and lacking internal resources.

 And yet, do these apparent beliefs of the ancient philosophers not strike a cord with many of us, especially those of us who work for large corporations where everything has to be written down in endless memos, reports, emails, notes, etc., and where the spoken word has become secondary to the written one?

Are our executives not becoming depersonalised, and possibly inhuman, as a result of having to write everything down, be it in a notebook, a laptop computer or on an IPad? Even with all the Facebook ‘Like’ and messages and ongoing Tweets, and all manner of digital To-Do apps and diaries, why is it that so many of us are still late for meetings or appointments, or forget to do things. Why it with is so much available gadgetry for helping us do things and for reminding us when stuff has to be done, do we still so often hear the excuse: “I forgot”?

 Without delving too deeply into the psychology of thought or the physiology of the brain, let us for a moment dwell on whether writing something down improves memory. Most memory-enhancing courses recommend that pictures or symbols are better than words when preparing for a speech or a lecture. PowerPoint slides with pictures seem to be more powerful than those with just bullet points. Words on their own seem difficult to remember whereas graphics are more easily absorbed by the brain.

Why is this? Is it perhaps because the brain works more with thoughts and meanings and is unlike a computer which works with data? Pictures and symbols carry with them personally interpreted thoughts, whereas words, or sentences, are more rigid in their interpretation, although they can be subject to free thought word association. Words and data are facts with rigid meanings and are difficult to translate into thoughts. As a result the brain has difficulty in remembering them.

Mark Twain once said: “A man’s private thoughts can never be a lie; what he thinks, is to him the truth, always.” We are more easily able to forget facts than our thoughts. From here can we not deduce that written facts will be more easily forgotten than our own special thoughts, and they are all uniquely special for us as individuals?  So perhaps Socrates and his colleagues may have been right.

One of the problems psychologists have in the measurement of memory is that each time we remember we transform our memories; the human memory is not like that of a computer, called up from store, consulted and replaced unmodified. It’s almost as if the memory is recreated each time we have to remember. Our thoughts are also transformed by our environment, which again is very unlike the memory of a computer.

Spare a thought for one Shereskevskii (he was mostly called Mr.S because nobody could remember his name) who had a major problem; he could not forget. Psychologists who studied him found that he translated all inputs into his brain in the form of intricate pictures and stories. All past memories kept intruding on fresh ones.

But let’s get back to our corporate obsession with written documents. What we are writing to each other all day are mostly facts and data which may be very important but which are difficult to remember. Perhaps we should rather communicate thoughts and meanings. Ricardo Semmler at Semco (Maverick) has obtained amazing results by asking all staff to write only ‘headline’ memos. The full meaning, not the facts and data, is thus communicated.

An engineer in his organisation who invents and develops a new machine does not have to write an endless report to communicate and justify his idea: he simply sends the boss a memo stating’ “New Cost Effective Gismo Invented-It Works!” Those who want to see how it was developed can ask him. There is also little doubt that we should use the spoken word more. Socrates believed that when we speak to each other we communicate our thoughts and our meanings of things.

In this way we enrich not only our own minds but also those that listen to us. Quoting Mark Twain again: “Life does not consist of facts and happenings. It consists of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing though one’s heads.”

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