The Influence of Symbolic Literacy on Memory: Testing Plato's Hypothesis

By Eskritt, Michelle; Lee, Kang et al. | Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, March 2001 | Go to article overview

The Influence of Symbolic Literacy on Memory: Testing Plato's Hypothesis


Eskritt, Michelle, Lee, Kang, Donald, Merlin, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology


Abstract The present study examined the influence of the production of external symbols on memory strategies. Plato hypothesized that dependency on writing as an external memory store would be detrimental to memory. Three experiments were conducted to explore this hypothesis. Participants played Concentration, a memory game where players must find matching pairs of cards placed face down in an array. Participants were allowed to make notes to aid their performance under some experimental conditions, while under other conditions they could not. In Experiments 1 and 2, the unexpected removal of participants' notes revealed that the performance benefit was due to notes acting as a form of external memory storage, rather than as an aid to encoding information in memory. Experiment 3 qualified these findings by demonstrating that the identity of each card was retained in memory, while the location of each card tended to be stored in the participants' external notations. These data suggest a modified interpretation of Plato's hypothesis in that symbolic literacy may change how we remember information. Rather than storing all information in memory, we only have to retain the information necessary to use the much larger storage capacity of the external system. Thus, the introduction of external symbols allows for a change in how memory is adaptively distributed.

It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when it came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: ... this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. (Plato, 1895, pp. 274-275)

Theorizing about the impact of literacy on cognition has a long history dating back as far as the ancient Greeks. Plato hypothesized that literacy would lead to a dependency on writing which would be detrimental to memory, as the above quote demonstrates. Aristotle, in contrast, believed that writing was simply the transcription of speech and does not play a special role in cognition. Today, the debate continues on the relationship between literacy and cognition with a range of different views that fall on a continuum (e.g., Olson & Torrance, 1991). On one extreme is the Aristotelian view that literacy and speech perform the same functions but in different ways (e.g., Bloomfield, 1933; Carruthers, 1990; deSaussure 1916/1983). Literacy is assumed to have no impact on individual cognition, whereas it can have an influence at the societal level, allowing a more rapid accumulation of knowledge over time and space. For example, some theories addressing the origin of writing assume that writing is merely the transcription of speech (for review see Harris, 1986; Olson, 1996). The history of writing systems progresses from pictorial representations, to logograms, and eventually to the alphabet. In this context, earlier forms of writing may be viewed as imperfect attempts at representing the phonology of language. The development of the alphabet then is the end result of a series of progressive steps to a better representation of speech.

The other extreme is the "great-divide theory" according to which literacy is viewed a representational domain in its own right rather than a transcription of speech. This implies that while literacy serves some of the functions that speech is capable of, it also performs these functions in new ways that can lead to novel views and ideas. Thus literacy can have an influence at both the societal and individual levels. Various authors (e.g., Goody & Watt, 1968; Havelock, 1963; McLuhan, 1962; Ong, 1982) have suggested that writing restructures thought. Consequently, because it allows more reflective thought, literacy is believed to have led to the development of logical, analytical, and scientific thinking present in Western culture today. …

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