Jean-Marie Guyau, "Memory and Phonograph" (1880) 
 Literature in a Postprint World


Reasoning by analogy is of considerable importance to science; indeed, in as far as it is the principle of induction it may well form the basis of all physical and psychophysical sciences. Discoveries frequently start with metaphors. The light of thinking could hardly fall in a new direction and illuminate dark corners were it not reflected by spaces already illuminated. Only that which reminds of us something else makes an impression, although and precisely because it differs from it. To understand is to remember, at least in part.

Many similes and metaphors have been used in the attempt to understand mental abilities or functions. Here, in the as yet imperfect state of science, metaphors are absolutely necessary: before we know we have to start by imagining something. Thus, the human brain has been compared to all kinds of objects. According to Spencer it shows a certain analogy to those mechanical pianos which can reproduce an infinite number of melodies. Taine makes of the brain a kind of print shop which incessantly produces and stores innumerable clichés. Yet all these similes appear somewhat sketchy. One normally deals with the brain at rest; its images are perceived to be fixed; stereotyped; and that is imprecise. There is nothing finished in the brain, no real images; instead, we see only virtual, potential images waiting for a sign to be transformed into actuality. How this transformation into reality is really achieved is a matter of speculation. The greatest mystery of brain mechanics has to do with dynamics—not with statics. We are in need of a comparative term that will allow us to see not only how an object receives and stores an imprint, but also how this imprint at a given time is reactivated and produces new vibrations within the object. With this in mind, the most refined instrument (both receiver and motor in one) with which the human brain may be compared is perhaps Edison's recently invented phonograph. For some time now I have been wanting to draw attention to this comparison, ever since I came across a casual observation in Delboeuf's last article on memory which confirmed my intentions: "The soul is a notebook of phonographic recordings."

Upon speaking into a phonograph the vibrations of one's voice are transferred to a point which engraves lines onto a metal plate that correspond to the uttered sounds—uneven furrows, more or less deep, depending on the nature of the sounds. It is quite probable that, in analogous ways, invisible lines are incessantly carved into the brain cells which provide a channel for nerve streams. If after some time the stream encounters a channel it has already passed through, it will once again proceed along the same path. The cells vibrate in the same way they vibrated the first time; psychologically, these similar vibrations correspond to an emotion or a thought analogous to the forgotten emotion or thought.

This is precisely the phenomenon which occurs when the phonograph's small copper disk, held against the point which runs through the grooves it has etched, starts to reproduce the vibrations: to our ears, these vibrations turn back into a voice, into words, sounds and melodies.

If the phonographic disk had self-consciousness, it could while replaying a song point out that it remembers this particular song; and what, to us, appears as the effect of a rather simple mechanism would, quite probably, strike the disk as a miraculous ability: memory.

Let us add that it could distinguish new songs from those already played as well as new impressions from simple memories. Indeed, a certain effort is necessary for first impressions to etch themselves into metal or brain; they encounter more resistance and, correspondingly, have to exert more force; and when they reappear, they vibrate all the stronger. But when the point traces already existing grooves instead of making new ones, it will do so with greater ease and glide along without applying any pressure. Memory or reveries have been thought of in terms of inclination; indeed, to pursue a memory: to smoothly glide down a slope, to wait for a certain number of complete memories which appear one after the other, all in a row and without shock. There is, therefore, a significant difference between impressions in the real sense and memory. Impressions tend to belong to either of two classes: they either possess greater intensity, a unique sharpness of outline and fixity of line; or they are weaker, more blurred and imprecise, but nevertheless arranged in a certain order which imposes itself on us .To recognize an image means to assign it to the second class. One feels in a less forceful way and is aware of this emotion. A memory consists of the awareness, first, the diminished intensity of an impression, second, its increased ease, and third, the connections which it entertains with other impressions. Just as a trained eye can see the difference between a copy and the original, we learn to distinguish memories from impressions and are thus able to recognize a memory even before it has been located in time and space. We project this or that impression back into the past without knowing which part of the past it belongs to. This is because a memory retains a unique and distinguishing character, much like a sensation coming from the stomach differs from an acoustic or visual impression. In a similar manner, the phonograph is incapable of reproducing the human voice in all its strength and warmth. The voice of the apparatus will remain shrill and cold; it has something imperfect and abstract about it which sets it apart. If the phonograph could hear itself, it would learn to recognize the difference between the voice which came from the outside and forced itself onto it and the voice which it itself is broadcasting and which is a simple echo of the first, following an already grooved way.

A further analogy between the phonograph and our brain exists in that the speed of the vibrations which have been impressed on the apparatus can noticeably change the character of the reproduced sounds or recalled images. Depending on whether you increase or decrease the rotation of the phonographic disk, a melody will be transposed from one octave to another. If you turn the handle faster, a song will rise from the deepest and most indistinct notes to the highest and most piercing. Does not a similar effect occur in the brain when we focus our attention on an initially blurred image, increasing its clarity step by step, thereby moving it, as it were, up the scale? And could this phenomenon not be explained by the increased or decreased speed and strength of the vibrations of our cells? We have within us a kind of scale of images along which the images we conjure up and dismiss incessantly rise and fall. At times they vibrate in the depths of our being like a blurred "pedal", at times their fullness of sound radiates above all others. As they dominate or recede, they appear to be closer or farther away from us, and sometimes the length of time which separates them from the present moment seems to be waning or waxing. I know of impressions I received ten years ago which, under the influence of an association of ideas or simply due to my attention or some change of emotion, suddenly seem to date from yesterday. In the same way singers create the impression of distance by lowering their voice; and they merely need to raise it again to suggest the impression of approaching.

These analogies could be multiplied. The principal difference between the brain and the phonograph is that the metal disk of Edison's still rather primitive machine remains deaf to itself; there is no transition from movement to consciousness. It is precisely this wondrous transition which keeps occurring in the brain. It remains an eternal mystery which, however, is less astonishing than it appears. If the phonograph were able to hear itself, that, in the final analysis, would be far less mystifying than the idea of our hearing it. But indeed we do: its vibrations really turn into impressions and thoughts. We therefore have to concede the always possible transformation of movement into thought—one which appears more likely when it is a matter of internal brain movement rather than one coming from the outside. From this point of view it would be neither very imprecise nor very disconcerting to define the brain as an infinitely perfected phonograph—a conscious phonograph.