Brain Rewiring or Brain Draining?

By Pat Belanoff

I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country … and the name of the god himself was Theuth.  He it was who [24d] invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.  Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus …To him came Theuth to show his inventions….  The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts … but when they came to the letters, ‘This invention, O king,’ said Theuth, ‘will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories, for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.’  But Thamus replied, … now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.  For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory….  You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you will offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.


He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person, and in truth ignorant of the prophecy of Ammon, if he thinks [275d] written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written.

–Socrates speaking in Plato’s Phaedrus*

I read this and think to myself, “Was Socrates right in his pronouncement that writing ‘will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory’?”

Probably he was since there is evidence that at least some ancient Greeks were able to recite long passages of poetry with ease.  It seems reasonable to assume that one’s memory would lessen since it would not be so necessary as it had once been.

Is that some horrible outcome?  Maybe, but I do think that Socrates could not have known the power of writing as we now know it.  Words don’t just remind us of what we already know: words bring to us knowledge we did not previously have.  Furthermore, of course, written words preserve what is written and make it possible for the ideas in those words to go a long distance, both in miles and years.

I would suppose also (without any proof, just instinct) that writing may well have changed the way our minds work because ideas come to us through sight, not sound.

What has all this to do with my subject?  Well, we have heard from many (and that includes me, in all truth) that communication via the internet is destroying aspects of the workings of the mind that we now value.  We write something and some gizmo in our program indicates that we have produced a misspelled word or a grammatical error.  Maybe the gizmo even corrects the word and the grammatical error.  Will we learn what the correct spelling is or what the grammatical error is?  Does it matter whether or not we learn it so long as what appears on the screen (or whatever is printed from the screen) is correct?

Do we need to learn to identify errors if the gizmo is going to identify them for us?  And who are the people behind the gizmo?  Are they now going to be specialists of a very special class, a class that knows what the errors are and can thus create the gizmo that we may come to depend on?

But I have an additional worry here that Thamus doesn’t mention.  Writing removes us from the person who writes.  We can read (as I have here) words written centuries ago.  That’s a good thing, right?  Yes, it certainly seems so.  But what is missing is our awareness of the writer, the expressions on his/her face, the tone of voice, the presence of emotion on the face or in the body stance.  Now, of course, our truly great writers can capture all that in their writing.  They make us feel emotions and perhaps even sense the writer’s attitude toward his/her subject.  But the rest of us aren’t so successful with all that.

And in a world increasingly dominated by interactions between a computer program and a computer user, how can I know how my words affect the reader who sees those words on the computer screen?

For me, all of this boils down to the diminishing of human interaction and a need for teachers to develop strategies to counteract these outcomes. We as teachers have to concentrate on helping students identify their reactions to writing and aiding them as they understand the emotions they might be provoking in their writing. Equally, we must help them write in such a way that they communicate both ideas and feelings.

*Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 9. Translated by Harold N. Fowler. Harvard University Press, 1925.

Pat Belanoff is a Professor Emeritus at SUNY Stony Brook and serves on the OWL Advisory Board.