oral transmission: motivation and memorization

jkcowart at io-online.com jkcowart at io-online.com
Tue Jun 10 20:10:31 UTC 1997

Dear Indology Listmembers:

Our understanding of the human capacity for prodigious 
memorization need not be informed by speculations regarding
the past.  Twentieth century man still retains a remarkable
capacity for almost unbelievable memory performance--when
sufficiently motivated.  American author Truman Capote is a
modern case in point.

While conducting research for his work  _In Cold Blood_, 
Capote was prohibited by prison officials from taking notes or 
making tape recordings of his extensive interviews with the killers 
profiled in the book.  He nonetheless recounted long and detailed
conversations with them in the published work.

Not surprisingly, Capote was challenged by the press with respect
to the accuracy of his reportage.  Expecting this, he issued a 
challenge of his own.  He held a large press conference at which he
provided members of the media with several copies of a New York 
City borough white pages telephone book.  He then asked them to 
open it to any page and begin with any name.

Upon every instance he went on to recite the following ten names,
along with the addresses and phone numbers listed with them.

Knowing the restrictions under which he would be working, Capote 
had trained his memory for the interviews by memorizing the
entire phone book.

Apparently, no one doubted the accuracy of his reported 
conversations after that astonishing demonstration.

If the desire to overcome situational limits in order to produce a 
written work can be sufficient motivation for a memory task like 
Capote's (which involved "sterile" data), then ought we be surprised 
at similar--or greater--feats of memory (involving highly meaningful, 
cadenced, and rhymed word-images) stimulated by religious 

The issue is, ultimately, accuracy of transmission across memorizers
over time.  

Inasmuch as it seems unreasonable to ascribe equal zeal to all 
memorizers, it seems reasonable to admit the likelihood of some 
transmission errors.  Cultural changes and migratory factors would 
probably increase this likelihood.


J. Kingston Cowart
San Diego, California
<jkcowart at io-online.com>

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