Elon Musk is in the news again, this time for talking about how he wants to put microchips in our brains.
In early December, Musk suggested that Neuralink’s implantable chip might be ready for human trials in as little as six months. (He co-founded the company in 2016.) Musk boasted that the chip could one day allow users to control their smartphones with their thoughts, even “better than someone who has working hands.”
That’s fairly tame stuff for Musk.
Musk has previously waxed eloquent about “downloading” our consciousness into a computer or even a new body, so that we can “live forever.” One of the many transhumanist fantasies he has entertained over the years is that we will one day be able to use brain implants to store memories. “We can save and replay memories,” he said at another Neuralink event in 2020. “The future is going to be weird.”
As someone who has spent the past six years studying memory, count me unimpressed. There's nothing particularly “weird” about being able to “save and replay” memories. Humans have been doing this since, well, forever, using the single most sophisticated “wetware” neural network in the universe: the human brain.
No doubt our futurists will accuse me of being deliberately obtuse. The exciting thing about brain-integrated, silicon-based “hardware” memory, they will explain, is that it can be used to augment our natural memories. But once again, count me unimpressed. Humans have been successfully augmenting their memories, accomplishing staggering feats along the way, for millennia.
Take Thomas Aquinas. His contemporaries marveled at the power of his memory. Aquinas's fourteenth-century biographer, Bernardo Gui, wrote that “whatever [Aquinas] had once read and grasped he never forgot; it was as if knowledge were ever increasing in his soul as page is added to page in the writing of a book.”
Gui recounts how Aquinas composed the Catena Aurea—a vast collection of verbatim quotations from Patristic texts, organized by topic—“from texts he had read and committed to memory from time to time while staying in various religious houses.” Even the monumental Summa, with its thousands of quotations from and references to other authors, was apparently written mostly from memory.
By all accounts, Aquinas was naturally gifted. But it was also more than that. In the Summa, Aquinas provides four rules for training one's memory: 1) Create “unusual” images of the things you want to remember; 2) Set them in order; 3) Focus intensely on them; 4) Meditate frequently on them.
These four rules, which he certainly must have practiced himself, were based on the famous “loci” method of memory training found in the anonymously authored Roman treatise on rhetoric, the Ad Herennium, which was in turn based on advice in Cicero's De Oratore.
A few years ago, the journalist Joshua Foer decided to practice these techniques for a year. At the end of it, as he recounts in his best-seller Moonwalking with Einstein, he won the U.S.A. Memory Championship, successfully memorizing 107 first and last names in fifteen minutes, 94 random digits in five minutes, a randomly shuffled deck of cards in a minute and forty seconds, and performing other similarly useless but impressive feats. However, ancient and medieval practitioners of the art put these techniques to much more meaningful work, memorizing such things as all 10,000 lines of the Aeneid, or vast quantities of Scripture.
Ultimately, there's something paradoxical, and deeply telling, about the transhumanists’ lust for an implantable memory chip.
On the one hand, they are quick to conclude that human memory is obsolete in the digital age. Wikinomics author Don Tapscott declared as early as 2008 that for children, “memorising facts and figures is a waste of time”; all the information they need is a mouse-click away. A year earlier, Wired's Clive Thompson had fantasized about the “perfect recall of silicon memory.”
And yet, these same futurists drool over the remote possibility that memory chips will one day be implanted in our brains. In other words, a part of them recognizes that it's not enough to have knowledge out there, no matter how accessible. They want it closer, inside, integrated.
The feeling is not a new one. Plato famously fretted about the “new invention” of writing. “It will,” he wrote in the Phaedrus,
implant forgetfulness in [men's] souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. This dependence will help you seem wise and intelligent. You will hear, read and be able to reel off a vast amount of information. But you will not properly know about these things.
Over the years, I've memorized some 10,000 words of poetry. Why do that, when it's all available at any time, in books or on the web?
In memorizing poetry, it becomes a part of me. Were it possible to listen in to the shifting, growing, spreading, living neural pathways of my brain, I suspect one would hear Keats's “Ode to a Nightingale” or Arnold's “Dover Beach,” resonating in various ways and keys. Would it be the same if I could instantaneously access any poem at any time, on an embedded microchip? I doubt it.
Arguably the most important aspect of Aquinas's mnemonic advice is not the actual techniques themselves, but where his advice appears: in a response to an objection in the Summa’s treatise on virtue. Memory is one of the “integral parts” of the virtue of prudence; without memory, there can be no prudence. For Aquinas, then, a powerful memory is not just an intellectual advantage. There are moral reasons for developing one's memory.
What Aquinas understood, and what we seem to have forgotten, is that memory is not merely a storehouse of “information.” What we put into our memory, and how we put it there, has profound implications for our moral lives. The original brain-implant was, well, our brain. And as Aquinas argued, its native capacities can be improved enormously, through deliberate, structured practice. Granted, this is more difficult than simply inserting a chip into your brain. It requires selecting those things that you deem worth remembering, and then attending to them with focused care.
Aquinas can therefore teach you the “one cool hack” for augmenting your memory. But there's just one catch: Unlike Musk's chip, you're going to have to become a better person to use it.
John Jalsevac is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Toronto, and the headmaster at Our Lady of the Wayside Catholic School in Peterborough, Ontario.
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