Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas About the Mind: A Summary

Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas About the Mind: A Summary

Douwe Draaisma 

I recently read Douwe Draaisma’s Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas About the Mind. I found it fascinating and exceptionally well written. Not only does Draaisma provide a great history and context surrounding the relationship between metaphors and memory but he does so in a really engaging way.

I make fairly detailed notes when I read something useful and after the positive feedback I got from my summary and notes of James Gleick The Information I thought I’d post some similar rough summaries.

As with my other notes and quotes, the following isn’t intended to replace or replicate everything in the books. Get a hold of Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas About the Mind its really worth it! Hopefully once you’ve read it this might be useful for navigation and quotation.


Technology has provided metaphors with which we conceptualise how human memory works. From wax tablets, to print to photographs to computers metaphors provide important.
In ancient times and middle ages memory was trained and technology was a supplement to a well-trained mind. However, there is a tension between those who saw knowledge as stable and innate (Plato) and those who see memory as individual and sensory (Aristotle). We might even say that Ars Memoria (mnemonics) are a kind of technology which follows on from wax tablets with a background and then writing information onto it.

Modern science rejects metaphors and places an emphasis on experimental ideas of memory.
Robert Hooke is part of this tradition and sees memories as our way of perceiving time (time being non-sensory). He saw memories as a storehouse and thought of memories as spatial. He was then one of the first people to try to calculate the brain’s capacity for memories which starts a tradition of which counting things in bits and bytes and contemporary calculations the human brain in bits is part (for example Landauer). People at the time saw Hooke as too materialistic as most thought of memories as located in the soul, he saw the soul as the a form of attention selecting elements from the storehouse.

Franz Joseph Gall founder of phrenology located memories in different parts of the brain, memory for words, faces, language etc.

Phonograph becomes a metaphor for memory. People see the brain as a perfect phonograph rather than the phonograph as an imperfect brain. Also the phonograph only really worked with the innovation of adding wax to the surface to allow it to capture the sound, much like the wax tablets of Plato.

Experimental psychology on memory, people use Ebbinghaus (1885) as a start date even though it had been going on in different ways already, he had the first programme of research. He was a proto-behaviourist and cared about remembering syllables and numbers and didn’t care about the internal workings or connections of neurons.

Daguerrotype then used as a metaphor. Francis Galton uses composite photographs of criminals to try and find a type of face for each crime. This kind of technological seeing is used to describe how we have general impressions of things: we can call to mind a memory of a particular dog and a general dog. Memory is painted as being a set of composites.

Alfred Binet (psychologist) argued against this position. Studied blind chess players and saw memory as context situated.

Turing is a behaviourist. What matters is the result of information processing.

Daniel Dennett argues for intelligent homunculi, an emergence of each neuron being about to do simple tasks. Army of idiots.

Descartes sees memory as physical traces. These don’t just have to be in the brain. A lute player’s memory is in his hands.
Humans are only different from animals because they can actively make memories. When old people remember something from their childhood they are remembering (and repeating) the memory rather than remembering the event.

2 “The oldest memory aid is writing, in ancient times on clay or wax tablets, in the Middle ages on parchment and vellum, and later on paper”

3 These artificial memories have no only supported, relived and occasionally replaced natural memory, but they have also shaped out views of remembering and forgetting. Over the centuries memory aids provided the terms and concepts with which we have reflected on our own memory. We have ‘impressions’, as if memory were a black of sealing-wax into which a signet ring is pressed. Some events are ‘etched’ on our memory, as if the memory itself were a surface for engraving upon. What we wish to retain we have to ‘imprint’; what we have forgotten is ‘erased’. We say of people with an exceptionally powerful visual recall – for there have been Eulers in all ages  that they have a ‘photographic memory’.

‘Our views of the operations of memory are fuelled by the procedures and techniques we have invented for the preservation and reproduction of information’

‘The history of memory is a little like a tour of the depositories of a technology museum”

11 [Science uses metaphors all the time for how things function, the immune system ‘recognises’ a pathogen. The word stands in for the meaning. Scientists are reluctant to use metaphors for mental processes as there is no, more detailed, description of them]

‘Chapter 2 Memoria: Memory as Writing”

24 “The latin memoria had a double meaning: ‘memory’ and ‘memoir’”

[Plato in Theatetus] ‘Our minds contain a wax block, which vary in size, cleanliness and consistency in different individuals, but in some people is just right’

‘unlike clay tablets – which became hard – wax tablets could be erased and reused. In Plato’s Academy pupils probably carried similar tablets around and it must have been a very natural figure of speech to represent memory as a writing surface, whose quality varied with the composition of the wax. When someone has a good memory, when their mental wax ‘is deep, plentiful, smooth and worked to the right consistency’ they will find it easy to absorb memories and retain them for a long time. This ‘impressionability’ a term which harks back to the wax tablet, is lacking in those who have to make do with wax that is too soft. They quickly forget their impressions and thoughts: such people, according to Socrates, have ‘good learning ability’ but soon forgetful. If the wax is hard and stony, the impressions will not be deep enough.”

“After Plato and Aristotle, the metaphor of a wax-coated surface on which one could write or make impressions developed into a topos in the literature on memory. Cicero explained in his De oratore that just as writing consists of signs and of the material on which those signs are written, so memory, like a wax tablet, comprises both a space, a surface and the symbols written on it. And the Ad Herennium, a treatise on memory techniques, tells us that the practiced speaker can places images in the; ‘background’ and retrieve them at will; this background is like a wax-tablet or a sheet of papyrus, retention is like writing, remembering is like rereading what has been written.”

[also in Theatetus Socrates questions about the difference between having and possessing knowledge]
“possessing knowledge means having the bird in your aviary, having knowledge means having the bird in your hand; it is the difference between potentially and actually remembering.

“The metaphor of the storehouse raises the question of how something can be found in the memory which has not entered through the doors of the senses.”

[Plato says we knew everything already and Aristotle says we get everything through our senses. Augustine asks of Aristotle how we know we have forgotten something]
“how can we store the fact that something is absent?”
“It may have consoled him [Augustine] that a variant of his problem – the ‘knowing not’ phenomenon – remains unsolved in modern psychology”

33 [in Ancient and middle ages the book was an aid to remembering not its replacement]
“whereas in our age we say to ourselves ‘I must remember this until I can write it down’, our medieval ancestors thought, ‘I must write this down so that I can remember it better’

[concordances [look-up compendiums] for the bible in 1250 were one of the first reference works and paved the way for the first books with a list of concordances and alphabetical subject index.]

Giordano Bruno’s mnemonic system “The mnemonic system of this strange magister consisted of revolving wheels on which everything that existed was recorded. From the furthest solar systems to every last element, from the signs of the zodiac to ores and minerals, from geometry and music to inventions like pottery and the making of fire, from the phases of the moon to instruments like pincers and combs – the whole universe, from infinitely small to infinitely large, revolving in Bruno’s wheels.

“Robert Fludd (1574-1637)” theatre of memory used for mnemonics is thought to have been the Globe theatre

[Science as anti metaphors]

“in 1667 Thomas Sprat wrote in his History of the Royal Society that members were expected to keep to succinct and simple language, purged of the ‘trick of Metaphors’ Following in the footsteps of Bacon, Sprat railed against imagery in science. A year before another member, Samuel Parker, had gone much further. Parker advocated a general ban on the use of figurative language in scientific discourse. He cited the same reasons as Sprat, albeit in more flowery terms. He expressed a particular horror of metaphors, whose ‘wonton & luxuriant climbing up into the Bed of Reason, do not only defile it by unchast and illegitimate Embraces, but instead of real conceptions and notices of Things impregnate the mind with nothing but Ayerie and Subventaneous Phantasmes’

“all things considered it is quite odd that Robert Hooke should have written a treatise on human memory”
“Hooke’s theory of memory followed an exposition on time and the consciousness of time. Our knowledge of time, he argued, cannot be derived from our senses, since sense impressions are transient in nature. Perception of duration and frequency presupposes the operation of a memory”

“Hooke conceived of memory as a material organ, explicable in purely mechanical terms”

“it can be influenced by external factors like fever or excessive drinking. It may even be completely destroyed by an external force like ‘a fall or great blow upon the head’”

[he Hooke] memory was to thought of as a ‘repository’ or ‘storehouse’”

“Our senses act as ‘collectors or carriers’, delivering impressions to the storehouse. Actual storage, however, requires the simultaneous activity of the soul, which gives the impressions a certain shape and motion before inserting them in the common repository” [Time is important here, non-sensory]
[This action of the soul is called attention]
[the soul was located somewhere in the brain of man]
“in Hooke’s theory, time came to be conceived as a spatial quantity”

“Hooke saw the ideas stored in the brain as truly material entities, and in so doing, introduced a new type of question into theories of memory. For what is the rate at which these ideas are formed? What is the number of ideas in the memory? And what is their location? In traditional spiritual theories, memory was interpreted as a non-spatial entity and such questions hardly made sense. St Augustine took memory to be a quasi-space, ‘an inner place – though it is wrong to speak of it as a place’. The fact that every human being gathers innumerable quantities of memories in his lifetime will not lead to a lack of space, since memory has no physical limits: “it is a vast, immeasurable sanctuary. Who can plumb its depths?’ (St Augustine quotations from confessions trans R. S Spine-Coffin 1961 p.217 and 216)

[Hooke then calculates the number of individual memories a person can make in their life. This is really key as the start of quantifying memory as information and as bits and bytes. His calculations seem bizarre but they use the same cold, quantifying logic that we are used to today]

[Hooke thought a normal man would have stored ‘a thousand million of distinct ideas’] his calculations are a follows:

A hundred years contain 36525 Days, and 36525 Days contain 876600 Hours, and 876600 Hours contain 3155760000 Seconds. Now one with another, when the Soul is intent and acting, there may be 3600 formed with the compass of an hours, and so one in a Second of Time. So that if the soul could through the whole course of 100 years be continually so intent, and so acting and forming these ideas, and inserting them into his Repository of Organ of Memory, there might be 3155760000 Ideas. But by reason of Sleep interposed, one third Part of the Number will be taken off, the Soul then for the most part ceasing to form Ideas, or when it does, they are only imperfect and lost. So there will remain but 2103840000, or to take a round sum, but 21 hundred million. Now if we examine this remaining two thirds of Time or Moments, and therein consider what part of time remaining is lost in infancy, old age, sickness and inadvertency, we may well reckon that two thirds of these remaining moments are lost, a and no ideas at all formed in them; so instead of 21 hundred, there will remain but the number of 7 hundred millions. And if we again consider how small a part of these are industriously and carefully stored up, we may very well agree, that not above a seventh part of these are stored up: and so one hundred millions may be a sufficient number to be supposed for all the ideas that may have been treasured up in the Organ of memory through the whole course of a man’s life, though of a hundred years continuance; and consequently one year with another may be supposed top add to this store one million ideas.

[This is a wonder description (calculation?) as it is so precise and so slapdash at the same time!!)

[Hooke then thinks this might be too high and used introspection rather than calculus]
“if a man reflects on how many ideas he may have added to his store in the last month, he will probably find that the number will no exceed two or three hundred a day, perhaps as little as one hundred. So a man of fifty (Hooke himself was forty-seven at the time) may have deposited 1,826,200 distinct ideas in his storehouse, a little less than the two million ideas”

“because the ideas are continually pushed further away by newly formed ideas they may change shape or be completely lost

[Hooke’s second metaphor is also important]

“memory as microcosm” [the human mind is a microcosm of the universe”
[Links to Borges]

“over three centuries later we can see that Hooke’s theory of memory anticipates modern theory in a number of interesting ways. Examples include the relationship between the number of memories and estimate duration, the clear distinction between storage and reproduction and the stress on the active role of attention in the formation of enduring memories.”

“anyone tempted to make sarcastic observations on the laborious calculations regarding the number of stored ideas in the warehouse should look at the way in which the number of ‘bits’ in the human brain is currently calculated. The author of an article giving an overview of the field, Landauer, uses a method essentially identical to Hooke’s”
“Laudauer arrives at an ‘input rate to long term memory’ of 1.2 bits per second, where Hooke’s estimate had been one mental image per second. For someone ages seventy that gives a total of 1.8 billion bits.”
See T. K. Landauer, ‘How much do people remember? Some estimates of the quantity of learned information in long term memory’ Cognitive science 10 (1986) 477-93

“Hooke’s contemporaries denied the physicality of memory by placing memory within the soul” [Therefore Hooke’s theory is too materialistic and too mechanical for them]

The Neo-Platonist Henry More, for example had stated some years before Hooke’s lecture that it was self-evident that ‘the power of memory does not consist in such marks or figures in the brain or in any vibration or motion in there’, and that ‘memory is wholly in the should herself, and that she is the sole repository of all the perceptions she has had.’ Hooke, possibly in response to More, located memory outside the soul. This enabled him to describe memory processes in spatial and physical terms similar to those used in describing the material world.’
[If Hooke’s description is a mirror of the physical outside world might this link to the extended mind thesis, if memory is located outside the soul, might this be the first step to locating memory outside the brain or body too?]

[Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) first person to associate areas of the brain with different functions, and founded phrenology, which left his reputation somewhat harmed but he did start our thinking of a divided brain]
“there were six forms of memory: memory for facts, places, numbers, words, names and for people” [and they were located in different parts of the brain, we still use similar distinctions, “are you a names or faces person?”

[Gall used examples of people with brain injuries and aphasia , brain damage with cause the lost of ability to name objects or people]

[Phonograph becomes a metaphor for recording or memory of sounds.]
“only with the introduction of wax (1887), soft enough to record the traces, firm enough to retain them, did the phonograph develop into a convincing memory for sound” [Interesting use of wax as material and metaphor doubling back from antiquity to modernity]

“psychologist and philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau introduced the phonograph as a metaphor of memory with a number of general observations” in 1880
[brain was described as a perfect phonograph rather than the phonograph as an imperfect brain]

[People usually use Ebbinghaus’s Uber das Gedachtnis 1885 as the start point of the psychology of memory – particularly the experimental psychology, however people were doing experimental memory psychology earlier Segner in 1740 for example]
however “Ebbinghaus does have the honour of being the first to design and conduct an experimental programme.”
[Ebbinghaus uses experimental equipment but continues to use a metaphor of Plato’s’ wax seals]

[For Ebbinghaus] “what mattered in experimental research into memory were measurements and numbers, not the links between memories and neurons” (A proto-behaviourist]


[Samuel F. B. Morse (of Morse Code fame) was originally a portrait painter and professor in the arts of design. He had a great interest in the Daguerrtype and even met with Daguerre himself and exchanged knowledge of his code for knowledge about the photographic process. He then teamed up with John William Draper a chemist and physiologist who was working on capturing light. The two of them were a big part of popularising the Daguerreotype in America (at great expense)

[to them] “a photograph was quite simply a depiction of reality itself, a visualisation of the truth”

“After 1839 the human memory became a photographic plate, prepared for the recording and reproduction of visual experience.”


[memory traces] “bear no similarity to the form of what is being observed; in other words, they are stored in the form of a code. Draper also had a technical metaphor at hand for this code. Referring to the work of fellow-professor and studio sharer Morse, Draper wrote that the external form of what was observed and the neuronal trace are related like ‘the letters of a message delivered in a telegraphic office and the signals which the telegraph gives to the distant station’

[Photograph is used as a metaphor of memory using Morse code as a secondary metaphor]

[Francis Galton experimented with photographs of criminals to try to find repeating characteristics.]
“But he opposed the idea that there was such a thing as typical murderers’ or frauds faces. For that, the differences within a category were too great: ‘The individual faces are villainous enough, but they are villainous in different ways, when they are combined, the individualities disappear and the common humanity of a low life type is all that is left’ … Thus Galton opposed a prejudice of his time”

[Compound photography was used in his criminology tests to make composites. This process helped the understanding of how we make general impressions or abstract notions from particular memories]
“we can form a visual memory of a specific dog by looking at its image in our minds, but how do we arrive at the general notion of ‘dog’?’”
[This question goes back to Plato and Aristotle and in this case the metaphor of composite photographs was used]

[Photographic memory and chess players]
“chess players have no difficulty in remembering a game because the development has a meaning for them”
[Alfred Binet, at the end of the turn of the 1900s researched blind chess players and found that they did not remember individual pieces but a meaningful pattern of moves etc.]
in ‘Mnemonic virtuosity: a study of chess players’ Genetic psychology monographs 74 (1996 trans.)
[Binet particularly argued against Galton’s ‘compound photograph’ metaphor as too mechanical and actually memory is about attention.

Digital memory

[Draaisma argues that the computer was the dominating metaphor for memory from the 1950s-1980s and that other more specific technologies then took over. Although this might be true in psychology and science research I think that it is still the dominant metaphor]

[the electronic brain has two family trees]
“one leads from the clockmakers of the seventeenth century and the builders of automatons and androids, via innovations in metallurgy and micro-mechanics, through inventors of transmission mechanisms to, in out time, specialists in electronics and micro-physics. The other lines leads through the history of mathematics and logic, philosophy and linguistics. Vernon Pratt describes the history of artificial intelligence as a succession of three ‘projects’ associated with the names of Leibniz, Babbage and Turing – not coincidentally three researchers with a double talent that enabled them to contribute both to the technical and conceptual developments.”
Vernon Pratt Thinking Machines. The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence 1987


John Wilkins [tried to create a universal/artificial language] in which all technical, scientific and everyday knowledge was incorporated in an encyclopaedic scheme. In a heroic effort to escape the curse of Babel, Wilkins began his universal classification of concepts with forty types, each divided into nine sorts, in turn divided into nine ‘differences’ such as colour, weight etc. Each distinction was given its own letter code
[Robert Hooke was a protégé and wrote a treaties in this language]

Jacquard loom


Wilhelm Schickard … built the first calculating machine (1623 in a letter to Kepler)

[See Turing article ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’]
“Although it is possible in principle to simulate the behaviour of nerves in electric models, in Turning’s view this is not the way the analogy should be applied: “it would be rather like putting a lot of work into cars which walked on legs instead of continuing the use of wheels” [We should think of the transfer of information instead. Which is a behaviourist model of thinking]

155 [computers were presented as a solution to the problems of Descartes and Hume]
[mind and body would work like software and hardware, intertwined]
[Hume’s problem was solved by Daniel Dennett. That there be a hierarchy of routines and sub-routines in thought. The lowest level of function being an ‘army of idiots” (from pg. 124 in Brainstorms. Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology 1978) which are embodied in simple on off neurons “homunculi who are gradually further unburdened because they delegate their work to less intelligent homunculi”


[words and terms transfer back and forth from computing to psychology retrieval, address, encoding etc.]

E. F. Loftus memory 1980 uses the computer metaphor extensively

[however AI reaches a stage of difference. Human mind works like a mosaic. Computers do not work simultaneously.]
“The computer plays its melodies one  key at a time, albeit incomprehensibly fast; the human memory strikes whole chords”
[not sure whether I agree or not?]


“The novelist W. F. Hermans writes that our recollection sometimes behaves ‘like a drunken servant, who is able to retrieve only cobwebs, slivers of glass and stories about ghosts from a cellar where the most precious wines are stored.”


Descartes on memory [purely mechanical, similar to muscle memory] ‘a lute player, for instance, has part of his memory in his hands’ see 146 The Philosophical Writings of Descartes

‘old people who recall a scene from their childhood, are not remembering their childhood but a memory of their childhood’

[Descartes saw animals as automatons and humans as being capable of voluntary memory]

Richard Graham

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