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Bigger Pictures: Mind Your Metaphors

Image of book titled, Metaphors of Memory

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

     ~  Kurt Vonnegut

Many years ago I stumbled onto Douwe Draaisma’s Metaphors of Memory.  My copy of his slim volume has been lost to lending, or sits in one of many water-tight boxes in a super-secret book storage facility at an undisclosed location known only by the code name “Cherry Hill, New Jersey”.  If I told you any more of the super-secret book storage facility just off Route 38, well…I digress.

What I’m saying is that I’m going by memory here, my memory of a book I read and then reread in sections over a decade ago.  But, in broad strokes, as I think I remember it, Draaisma says that as scientists and philosophers through human history have grappled with this thing called “the mind,” especially this key function called “memory,” they have, in their struggle, resorted to metaphors of external storage to explain something – memory – that is internal and intangible.

As our technology changed over the centuries so did our metaphors:  Tabla rasa (the blank slate).  Building a memory palace.  “Photographic” memory.  To say nothing of our current techno blurring of mind and machine – my current favorite being when people tell me that “I just don’t have the bandwidth,” like all they need to do to pass Physics is upgrade to the Xfinity X1 platform.   What all these technology metaphors have in common is that they reduce memory to a question of data storage.

Memory is so tied up with learning that it’s too easy to forget that one is not the other.  Anyone who has ever tried to memorize – data point storage style – 329 PowerPoint slides can attest to the fact that there’s something missing.  Students here at Dear Old Penn are rarely asked to regurgitate simple data points on exams like they’re pulling up contact information on an alleged smartphone.  Simple storage techniques arising from simple storage metaphors do not equal learning and won’t get the job done in these parts, mainly because you’re a human being and not an overpriced device that goes obsolete in 18 months.

Which is all well and good, but isn’t helping me remember what I did with my copy of Metaphors of Memory….

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Specialist, Weingarten Center

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