Ancient theories about Memory

Memory is one of the most important faculties of the human brain. Due to it we can store a huge amount of information in our brain and reproduce it whenever we want. It is difficult to imagine our life without memory. We still don't know precisely when and where people started to pay attention to memory, but reputable sources say that the first references of it began in Ancient Greek and went as far back as to the 6th century BC. So what kind of theories about memory existed in ancient times.

  • Introduction

  • Memory is one of the most important faculties of human brain. Due to it we can store a huge amount of information in our brain and reproduce it whenever we want. It is difficult to imagine our life without memory. Actually, we still don't know precisely when and where people started to pay attention to memory, but reputable sources say that the first references of it began in Ancient Greek and went as far back as to the 6th century BC. Let’s see what theories about it existed in ancient times.
  • The theory of Parmenides

  • The theory of Parmenides, Greek philosopher, the founder of the Eleatic school, is not so glorious. He thought that memory is a mixture of light and dark, heat and cold and an alternation of this mixture can cause the disorder of memory, but as long as the combination is perfect, memory is in the ideal state too.
  • The theory of Diogenes

  • After a century of the theory of Parmenides Diogenes created another theory, according to which Memory is a process, which provides the equal distribution of the air in the human body, but he, like Parmenides, mentioned that when this equilibrium was disturbed forgetting occurs.
  • The theories of Plato and Zeno

  • These two theories complement each other and are relatively close to the truth than the previous ones. The theory of Plato which he created in the 4th century, BC, was now known as the Wax Tablet hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, events are fixed in our mind in the same way as the objects leave a mark on the wax tablet when applied to its surface, but during our lifetime they are erased in the same way as the wax tablet again becomes smooth. Plato mentioned that the processes of remembering and forgetting alternate each other. During some period of our life events get fixed in our mind; and then happens just the reverse, events are erased, and as a result of it, our memory gets its former condition. Shortly after that Zeno the Stoic slightly developed Plato’s hypothesis suggesting his own theory. According to it impressions are fixed on the wax tablet with the help of sensations. We should mention that Zeno, like others before him, did not consider the brain as a particular organ of the human body and they thought it did not have its precise place in the body.
  • The Theory of Aristotle

  • Aristotle was the first who tried to describe memory scientifically, mentioning that the terminology used previously was not adequate to explain physical aspects of memory. He thought that memory is directly connected with the blood circulation and the poor circulation of the blood causes forgetting. Aristotle did not know that the blood circulation is regulated by the heart and if we believe his theory not our brain but our heart controls our memory (but don’t take this too seriously :D ).
  • The theory of Herophilos

  • In the 3rd century BC, ancient Greek philosopher Herophilos introduced expressions called “vital” and “animal” spirits, the first of which is the source for the second one. Animal spirits included memory, the functions of the brain and nervous system which according to the Herophilos are lower spirits. Let’s pass from the Ancient Greeks to the Ancient Romans, which we will discuss very shortly.
  • Cicero and Quintilian…

  • Generally, neither Cicero (1st century, BC) nor Quintilian had any valuable contributions in this sphere. They unconditionally accepted Plato’s Wax Tablet Hypothesis. But the remembering system introduced by them is very peculiar. They were the first to introduce the idea of a link system and a room system which we will describe after some pages. This much about Ancient Romans
  • The theory of physician Galen

  • The great physician Galen (2nd century) seriously examined human organism, delineated different anatomical and physiological structural peculiarities of the human body, made further investigations of the nervous system. He also paid attention to memory. Galen, like the ancient Greeks, thought that memory and other mental processes were part of the lower order of the animal spirits. He felt that air was sucked into the brain and mixed with the vital spirits. In the result, animal spirits were produced which were prompted out through the nervous system enabling humans to express various sensations. According to Galen animal spirits were produced by the sides of the human brain, and consequently, memory was also located there.
  • Christian Church influences…

  • The Christin church influences and for more than 1500 years the ideas about memory remained the same. The Church adopted Galen’s theory and made it doctrine and started to suppress the philosophers and greatest minds who dared to say something against this dogma or suggest another theory. This continued until the end of the 17th century.
  • The Theory of David Hartley

  • Davit Hartley’s (18th century) vibratory theory of memory had a revolutionary impact on the ideas of the memory of that time. Applying Newton’s hypothesis of vibrating particles, Hartley suggested that before the birth of child vibrations of memory occurr in the brain. This theory hints us that new sensations modified degree, kind, place, and direction of already existing vibrations. After being influenced by a new feeling, vibrations quickly returned to their natural state. If the same sensation happens again, vibration requires more time to return to its natural state. If the same sensation occurs several times, it caused the new state of the vibration to remain, and a new memory trace was established.
  • The Rejection of Georg Prochaska

  • This Czech physiologist appeared emerged self-confidently and irrevocably rejected Herophilos’ old aged theory of vital and animal spirits assuming that it did not have any scientific basis. He thought that it was little known about the phenomenon called memory, so making speculations about its nature was just a waste of time. He said, “Spatial localization may be possible, but we just do not know enough at the moment to make it a useful idea.”
  • Conclusion

  • So, as we see, there were many different and complicated theories about memory. Some of them may be true, others close to the truth, some of them sound really ridiculous. But the fact is that, it was recognized from ancient times and gained special attention.
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