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Modern Memory And Personal Identity

The spread of print literacy by the eighteenth century transformed the cultural understanding of episodic memory. In print culture, collective knowledge could be easily preserved in readily accessible, alphabetically indexed reference books, rendering obsolete the practical applications of the art of memory in information retrieval. The psychological effect was to free memory for personal reflection on formative life experience, particularly that of childhood. The idea of memory thenceforth came to be closely allied with autobiographical soul-searching. The prototypes for this genre of self-analysis were the Confessions (1762) by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and the Prelude (1805) by the English poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850). But for early twentieth-century readers, the most poignant introspective evocation of the past was that of the French writer Marcel Proust (1871–1922), who, in his multivolume novel In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927), marveled at the way an impromptu experience of sensory recall could spontaneously awaken the brilliant immediacy of an entirely forgotten cultural world. For the literati of the modern age, recovered memory was perceived to be the surest route to the discovery of the deep sources of personal identity.

Memory reconceived as the search for self was given a scientific foundation by the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Just as Plato had recourse to memory as a means for lifting the soul to an awareness of an ideal world, so Freud aspired to employ memory to open passageways leading to truths hidden in the unconscious. He invented psychoanalysis as a therapeutic technique for helping his patients cope with their neuroses, which he attributed to repressed memories of trauma earlier in their lives. Freud thought of the unconscious psyche as a subterranean archive where forgotten memories of unresolved issues pressed their unanswered claims on the conscious mind in ways that impaired its capacity to deal with present realities. In recovering repressed memories, patients would come to recognize the sources of their inner conflicts and so gain self-knowledge that would enable them to act more effectively in their present endeavors. Like the art of memory, Freud's psychoanalytic technique used the principle of displacement. Seemingly innocuous dreams, "screen memories," and slips of the tongue were often place markers for trauma in an individual's life history, providing clues to more troubling memories buried in the unconscious. The skilled psychoanalyst could help patients recover them.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMemory - The Ancient Art Of Memory, Modern Memory And Personal Identity, The Social Frameworks Of Collective Memory